Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy Oakland's Seaport Shutdown Makes Case For Industrial Action

Oakland, California, San Francisco's grittier East Bay neighbor, Wednesday briefly became the epicenter of the global 99% Occupy Movement when tens of thousands of activists, students, teachers, working class laborers, and middle class families marched through downtown streets, rallied before megabank branches, and shut down the night shift at the nation's fifth busiest seaport.

Showing solidarity with Seattle longshore workers who were in a labor dispute, some 10,000 peaceful protesters blocked access to the Port of Oakland, and its giant cranes ground to a halt. A long line of semi tractor-trailers queuing to pick up containers bearing the outflow of globalization idled outside the sprawling facility. Some honked their horns in support of the protesters.

"Maritime operations are effectively shut down," Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin told KTVU News at the height of the demonstration.

Longshore workers at the container facility had not called a strike themselves, but had warned they would not cross a well-organized community picket line.

Most of the crowd dispersed after 11 p.m., and by Thursday afternoon, the port was back in action.

The General Strike Occupy Oakland organizers called in response to the October 25 police beat-down that sent Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen to Highland Hospital with a fractured skull showed protest demonstrations in the U.S. could draw the numbers seen in more activist Europe. While police estimates claimed the crowds numbered around 4,500, reputable media counts ranged nearer 10,000, with some estimates as high as 100,000.

More importantly, shutting down the Port of Oakland revealed the demonstrations had some muscle. The model could prove useful in getting the haughty one-percenters' attention. Large numbers of fed-up masses marching on major industrial operations could be the best way to storm the plutocrats' ivory towers.

General strikes of yore staged by the nascent labor movements of another era helped usher in America's greatest period of prosperity, and won for Americans a social contract today's one-percenter plutocrats have eagerly broken. Industrial actions could again address economic imbalances and injustices reminiscent of the 1930s.

Just as labor shut down seaports and factories in the past, today's 99% could march on the core institutions that propel the global economy. Far more effective than chanting in front of a local bank branch, mass demonstrations aimed at ports, transportation and energy infrastructure would deliver protest to the doorstep of the plutocrats' most vital engines.

In Europe, protesters have shut down major highways and blocked access to nuclear plants. Railway strikes were common occurrences.

In America in the first decades of the twenty-first century, the lifeblood of the global plutocracy was the titanic fossil fuel industry.

The beating heart of this beast was in south Texas. A shockingly small handful of massive refinery complexes formed the vital core of a fossil fuel processing empire strung along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christie to the Louisiana bayous.

Fully 40% of America's oil refining capacity resided in the giant refineries arrayed along a swath of south Texas and Louisiana. Half of that refining capacity was clustered around Houston, Texas City, Baytown, Port Arthur, and Beaumont. Within an hour-and-a-half drive. Traffic permitting.

The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves resided nearby. Pipelines for gas and oil criss-crossed the region. Fort Hood, America's premiere Army base, wasn't in Texas for the weather.

Moreover, as the Northeast and West Coast were also home to sizable chunks of America's refining capacity, the refineries in and around Houston represented much of the gasoline, diesel, kerosene and jet fuel needed to negotiate a wide swath of the middle of the country.

Industrial action in this beating heart of global plutocracy would shake ivory towers from Houston to New York to London to Beijing. Industrial action in the core of America's energy infrastructure would force capitalism itself to stare mortality in the face. Thousands of feet tramping toward the gates of those giant refineries and gas distribution heads would be walking over globalizations' grave.

Angry masses bearing down on those refineries would be marching on the heart of global economic life. Townsfolk storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. Well, perhaps not with torches. Torches didn't mix well with facilities so catastrophically inflammable workers were barred from wearing steel-toed boots. Refineries didn't prohibit cigarette smoking because the proprietors were obsessed with lung disease.

The traditional accessory for pitchforks notwithstanding, masses bearing down on the refineries would give the local constabulary, to say nothing of security authorities all along the food chain, headaches no one could use. In an increasingly flattening world featuring increasingly asymmetrical warfare challenges, those security authorities already had enough to fret over in a neighborhood where a handful of dedicated partisans with, say, a half-dozen ordinary infantry mortars, and, say, a half-dozen ordinary pickup trucks with sand-filled inflatable kiddie wading pools in their beds for firing platforms could give money moguls in corner offices from Boston to Bangkok the worst day of their lives.

While angry townsfolk mightn't march with torches, and candlelight vigils were probably off the table as well, law enforcement's options would likewise be limited.

Tear gas would be a no-no. Flash-bang grenades were absolutely out of the question. Probably, use of any sort of gunpowder-driven weapon system would be strongly frowned upon.

Scott Olsen might have been better off picketing Exxon Mobil's Baytown refinery than Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza.

The refineries in Texas and Louisiana were the critical blocks at the bottom of the global financial jenga pile, the aces at the base of the multinational house of economic cards. Huge refineries were spread all along the region, but many of the biggest were clustered around Houston:
  • Baytown Refinery (Exxon Mobile), 560,000 bbl/day capacity
  • Beaumont Refinery (Exxon Mobile), 348,000 bbl/day.
  • Houston Refinery (Lyondell), 270,000 bbl/day.
  • Houston Refinery (Valero), 83,000 bbl/day.
  • Independent Refinery (Stratnor), Houston, 100,000 bbl/day.
  • Sweeney Refinery (Conoco Phillips), 229,000 bbl/day
  • Texas City Refinery (BP), 460,000 bbl/day.
  • Texas City Refinery (Marathon Oil), 72,000 bbl/day.
  • Texas City Refinery (Valero)  210,000 bbl/day.
  • Deer Park Refinery (Shell Oil), 334,000 bbl/day.
  • Pasadena Refinery (Petrobras), 100,000 bbl/day.
  • Port Arthur Refinery (Total), 174,000 bbl/day.
  • Port Arthur Refinery (Motiva), 285,000 bbl/day.
  • Port Arthur Refinery (Valero), 325,000 bbl/day.
The fourteen refineries clustered around Houston and Port Arthur accounted for 3.5 million of the United States' 17.6 million barrel-per-day refining capacity. That was 20% of America's total capacity.

Fortunately for the plutocrats and oligarchs, the heart of the fossil fuel beast beat in the reddest center of Redsylvania, among folks who figured Rick Perry and George W. Bush were the best possible choices for chief executives in all creation. Thus, the ivory towers would remain safe and inviolate forever and ever.

Or not.

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