'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 13, 2012

Occupy Oakland and the American Licorice Strike 

On Tuesday, participants in Occupy Oakland joined workers from Baker's Workers Union 125 on the picket line at American Licorice, the manufacturer of Red Vines, in Union City. They had been striking for about 36 days over American Licorice's new contract proposal to increase the share of the employee heath care contribution for the coverage of their families in 2013 and 2014. According to OakFoSho, the plant is turning out Red Vines around the clock.

Noah Zimmerman described his experience:

The picket looked strong. Hundreds of people I guessed, stretching along Whipple and around the corner to their mailbox at 2477 Liston Way (American Licorice’s phone number is 510-487-5500 if you want to call and confirm the address). Food, tables and chairs were set up. The workers on strike were members of Bakery Workers Union Local 125. They were mostly Latino. I spotted Occupy Oakland picketing the main entrance. It looked like the two groups were self-segregating.

Union City police were out in force. So were Hayward, Fremont and Newark police. A mutual aid agreement between the departments. Everything looked heavy but at least the riot gear wasn’t out.

Then, I saw them behind the main gate where the Oakland Occupiers were on a moving picket. Goons. Hired goons. Three of them, observing the picketers from behind the gate. The Huffmaster Security Crisis Team. Red Vines, which everyone eats at the movie theater (if anyone can still afford to go out) not only pull fillings out of your teeth but make factory bosses to pull out their checkbooks for present-day Pinkertons.

One of them was built like a brickhouse. He looked like a creation of Vince McMahon’s steroid-addled imagination. Asshole #1, one of the workers said, gesturing to him. No name? I asked. Asshole #1. He shoves people. Interesting.

One fellow in a Carhartt jacket told me that American Licorice was hiring scabs through a temp agency in Emeryville. They had Huffmaster ferry them in a white van. I heard the workers hadn’t tried to block the scabs up until that day.

So workers and occupiers blocked them.

The Huffmasters used a manuever where they put their hands on the hood of the vehicle and backed into the crowd. Someone sat down in front of the vehicle. There was nothing they could do, especially with dozens of cell cameras witnessing everything, live, versus Huffmaster’s one puny Sony Handicam without an Internet connection. The vehicle was repulsed. Back to the American Licorice lot, scab wagon.

A win. It’s happening. Now.

Again, with another vehicle, a Sentra with a Huffmaster logo on the dash, trying to get in. Some goon squad middle manager. Sit down in front of the car. Asshole #1 is clearly the ringleader on the ground of this union-busting wrecking crew. He looks like ex-military, which Huffmaster brags about hiring on their website. He cracks a bit. His latern jaw twitches as he tries to back into the crowd. How about no? We rejected the last vehicle and we reject this one, too.

I'd like to be able to say that the workers at American Licorice prevailed, that the community support provided by Occupy Oakland turned the tide. But it didn't. The workers at American Licorice decided to accept the company's offer. Again, according to Zimmerman:

Personally, I more surprised than disappointed that this happened so quickly at the federal negotiation table in Oakland. Rene Castillo was disappointed but the union voted democratically to accept the offer. I agree with Rene that if they had voted to stay on the picket line a little longer, based on what I saw on the line yesterday, the workers had the momentum.

At the same time, one month in the middle of winter is an incredibly long time to hold down a nonstop picket. It’s costly to families to not have a normal income. It’s cold out. Food is expensive, gas is expensive, housing is expensive. Strike funds get drained, especially with 178 workers. The tenaciousness and reserve of the workers was difficult to put into words and I only saw second to last day of the strike. They’d been out there since December 5th.

I think that this experience working in solidarity with Local 125 is a learning process for both Occupy Oakland, Occupy as a whole and unions who ask for our support. The biggest lesson to me is that time is of the essence. I heard rumors about Local 125 asking for support perhaps a week ago yet it took until yesterday for us to get organized enough to get down there and support them. This isn’t to point fingers. I should have done something earlier instead of passively waiting for instructions or a committee. So should have you if you felt passionate about it.

Our tactics were effective. Occupy can do things that union members can’t, like sit down in front of vehicles crossing the picket line.

The biggest lesson that I took away from this is we absolutely cannot dawdle when workers’ rights are under attack and our brothers and sisters put a call out for our help. Our goal should be to be able to deploy ourselves and our resources the next day within the Bay Area to any union that requests support in a labor struggle.

This is the first time Occupy Oakland or any Occupation as far as I know of was specifically asked for help in a labor dispute. Despite the settlement agreement, I consider yesterday a success. We are learning and adapting. This movement is fluid, evolving and its many moving parts are becoming finely tuned. Our network and connections with others in the 99% are growing stronger. I liked the people on a personal level on the picket lines. I won’t forget Yolanda, Maria, Juana, Maria and Rene Jr. or Sr. I met new people from Occupy Oakland and the labor community. I broke bread with them. The humor and conversations I had with others with will stay with me. I live in Richmond and have only driven through Union City before yesterday. I have a feeling I’ll cross paths with these comrades again sometime soon.

I hope that Zimmerman's cautious optimism is justifed. Certainly, any successful attempt to transform American society requires the kind of mutual aid provided for the benefit of the American Licorice workers in Union City.

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