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Alcatraz Ferry Worker Battle Heats Up...


Beyond Chron
February 12, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Marc Norton

Sunday, February 11, 7 am -
Members and supporters of the International Indian Treaty Council and the American Indian Movement are gathered at the gates to Pier 33, where Hornblower docks its Alcatraz ferries. They have come to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the "Longest Walk" in 1978. They have decided not to go to Alcatraz, as they traditionally do, but to hold the event outside Hornblower's gates to honor the picket line of Alcatraz ferry workers who have been on the streets now for several months.

The assembly, convened by AIM leader and former political prisoner Dennis Banks, spends over an hour discussing the importance of solidarity among struggling peoples. Today, they are remembering the "Longest Walk," when hundreds walked all the way from San Francisco to Washington, DC to protest anti-Indian legislation then being considered by Congress.

That long march was itself in memory of the "Long Walk" of the Navajo people in 1864, when thousands of imprisoned men, women and children were led by the infamous Indian-fighter Kit Carson on a grueling 300-mile forced march to a barren reservation. Hundreds died along the way, and hundreds more died at their new "home."

The spirit of struggle, and the spirit of solidarity, were tangible things at this ceremony on the Embarcadero, itself the scene of many a battle for freedom and justice.

Just two weeks earlier, on Saturday, January 27, thousands of anti-war demonstrators had made their own march, from a rally at Powell and Market, to this same place. They had come here, to Hornblower's pier, to express the solidarity of the anti-war movement with the struggle of the Alcatraz workers.                                                                             (Photo by Bernie Fox)

Speech after speech was delivered pledging real and militant support for the workers of the Inlandboatmen's Union (IBU) and the International Masters' Mates and Pilots (MMP).

And, on Wednesday, February 14, Valentine's Day, "...we will be stepping up our efforts to put some real pressure on MacRae, Hornblower and Alcatraz Cruises," reads a post from ferry-worker organizers. "We will be expanding our picket line to other locations along the Embarcadero beyond Pier 33... Join displaced Alcatraz ferry workers and supporters this Valentine's Day down at Pier 3 where... two $160 per plate dinner cruises are going out on the bay at 6:00 pm...

"Bring pots, pans, instruments and other various noisemakers for a theatrical and spirited picket line... Bring your sweetie and/or yourself to the picket line from 4:30-6:30 pm. There's no better way to show affection for your special someone than by fighting together for justice on the San Francisco Waterfront!"

Note that the Valentine's Day picket is at Pier 3, not the Alcatraz dock at Pier 33. Pier 3 is where Hornblower's dining cruises are staged. It is just a short walk north of the Ferry Building, near the Embarcadero BART and MUNI station.


It all sounds great, right? Struggling people fighting back hard and building support. Good, but in the opinion of this writer, not good enough.

In my considered opinion, the Alcatraz ferry workers are losing. Hornblower's ferries are nearly as full as Blue and Gold's ever were. As a result, Hornblower is raking in big bucks every day. Picket lines and demonstrations are a public relations problem for them, to be sure, but as long as we aren't causing them any real loss in business, they will just continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

As a bellman, I stand in a hotel lobby eight hours a day, often fielding questions from tourists about getting to Alcatraz. Very few of them have heard about Hornblower's troubles, and sad to say, rarely could they care less. We are not living in a world where labor solidarity matters much to most people, at least not the ones who show up in San Francisco on their vacations. Nobody has done anything yet that has given these folks much pause about getting on the ferry.

Hornblower was recently denied an increase in their fare. That's a good thing. But if you check out their website you will find that you can't make a reservation after March 25, suggesting that they still think a fare increase is possible before the busy Spring tourist season. That would be serious bad news.

There is more bad news. Sources tell me that Hornblower is in negotiations with the Blue and Gold Fleet to buy out their lease for their operation at Fisherman's Wharf. If this deal gets cut, Hornblower will be able to move from its inconvenient location on the Embarcadero into the heart of tourist-land. For Blue and Gold, this is just a business decision. They are hemorrhaging money to rent a building they aren't using, and docks they are only barely using. It is possible that even Blue and Gold's Sausalito, Angel Island, Tiburon and Bay Cruise ferry operations are in play.


Way back in October, as I have previously reported, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution declaring that they "can not allow a viciously anti-union operation to get a foothold in the heart of our labor citadel," and pledging to "mobilize the whole of the labor movement for mass picketing at Pier 33 and the San Francisco waterfront."

October, November, December, January, February...

At the January 27 anti-war rally in front of Hornblower's pier, Alan Benjamin, speaking for the Labor Council, declared "We cannot, we will not, allow Hornblower and its cronies to break our unions... We must exert our full union muscle to send them a signal that labor and its allies are united, that we will fight back, and that, if necessary, we will shut them down."

It is necessary to shut Hornblower down. It has been manifestly necessary for months now. It will be more and more necessary, the closer we get to the Spring tourist season.

I like Alan. My kids went to school with his kids. They played baseball together. I like a lot of the politics that Alan does. But there comes a time when words have to match reality if they are to believed. That time, as the Chambers Brothers once famously said, has come today.

I am reminded of a whole other set of speeches a couple of years ago, at a rally in front of Safeway at Church and Market. There other Labor Council leaders declared that the labor movement "could not, would not" allow the Safeway bosses to run roughshod over their union workers. In that case "could not, would not" turned out to mean very little -- and the Safeway bosses were able to shove a hugely-concessionary contract down their workers' throats. This was a major defeat for the Bay Area labor movement. If speeches and resolutions could defeat bosses, then the labor movement would have become king of the heap a long, long time ago.

Frankly, I consider the January 27 anti-war rally in front of Hornblower's gates a sadly-missed opportunity. When I first heard that the march was going to the pier, I assumed that the organizers intended to shut it down. That, in my book, is real solidarity. There were thousands of people there, in front of that little gate. We had a chance to take a stand, cost Hornblower some real money, make some news, and get the word out to the world that union-busting and scabbing has its costs. But that was not to be. The march organizers, instead of directing those thousands of people to the picket line, chose to hold another long-winded rally, with a lot of militant words.

I've taken some flack from friends for saying this about the January 27 march. I am told that there wasn't enough time or resources to organize such a thing. Perhaps not. But back in the days when I first started going to demonstrations and rallies (the 60s, for those who are wondering how old I am) there was no way that such a demonstration would have taken place without, at least, a major debate, probably right there in the street, about shutting the damn pier down. Now, it's like nobody even thought of it, except silly old me and a couple of other crazies.

A lot of people like to compare the movement against the war in Vietnam to the movement against the war in Iraq. They used to say that the current anti-war movement was way ahead of the old one. But, after five years of war in Vietnam, those of us in the homeland were tearing up the streets. After five years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are still marching around making speeches. No wonder George Bush feels he can keep putting more troops into the field.

Jack Heyman, a well-known San Francisco longshoreman who, unlike my friend Alan Benjamin, can't claim to speak for the Labor Council, had this to say in a recent
opinion piece in the Chronicle:

"In this atmosphere of one-sided class war, if unions are to survive as independent organizations that represent the democratic will of workers, then they will have to exercise their power -- even if that means defying unjust laws. That's what the civil rights movement did in the 60s and the labor movement did before that in the 30s...

"Will unions take the necessary action? That is the challenge of organized labor today."

That is, indeed, the challenge for all people who hold freedom and justice dear. We can't be satisfied with good words. We can't even be satisfied with good intentions. We have to take "the necessary action" -- whatever that action may be.

We have to fight to win. Otherwise, we lose.