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May Day brings unions and Occupy together


Tuesday’s May Day protests marked the re-emergence of the Occupy movement with coordinated protests around the Bay Area. But May Day—known around the world as International Workers Day—is traditionally a day when union members mobilize around labor issues. In San Francisco, those are ongoing.

The Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition – which represents 14 unions – and the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District – which oversees the bridge, Golden Gate Transit buses – have been in contract negotiations since last year. At issue are healthcare premium costs, pay raises, and retirement benefits.

On May Day, union members and Occupy protesters joined forces—causing the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District to cancel ferry service between Marin County and San Francisco for eight hours. Crosscurrents host Hana Baba sat down with transportation reporter Julie Caine to find out what happened at the protest, and what comes next.
HANA BABA: So, Julie, you went to an early morning protest at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal on Tuesday. Who was there, and what was happening?
JULIE CAINE: There were about 200 people picketing – a coalition of union members from 14 different transportation related unions, and about 50 Occupy folks who came out on buses from San Francisco and Oakland. They were all there to support a strike called by the Inlandboatmen’s Union, or IBU. That’s the union for deckhands and ferry terminal assistants—people who basically keep the ferries running, sell you tickets, and keep the parking lots clean.
BABA: What was the strike about?
CAINE: Well, union members who work in all kinds of capacities in the District—ferry boat captains, deckhands, bus drivers, ironworkers—are being asked to start paying part of their premium for healthcare coverage. Right now, the District pays for all of it. Unions and the District have been in negotiations about the way workers would pay for these premiums since April 2011.
Rene Alvarado is a terminal assistant in Larkspur who’s a member of the IBU. Here’s what he said to picketers on Tuesday:
RENE ALVARADO: We are on strike to protect our jobs and healthcare. People really deserve a good job. The same thing is happening to everyone. I see people getting laid off, health care costs going up. It's time for management to appreciate us the way that our passengers do.
BABA: So, that strike shut down ferry service, right?
CAINE: Yes. The Golden Gate Ferry, which serves around 6,000 commuters every day, was completely shut down for about eight hours.

BABA: And what were the effects? How did people react?

CAINE: The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District – which runs the bridge, Golden Gate Transit buses, and the Golden Gate ferry – got the word out to commuters about the strike the day before it happened, so most people knew about it. I asked District spokesperson Mary Currie about the decision to cancel ferry service.

MARY CURRIE: We’ve had very few people show up this morning, maybe less than a dozen who didn’t know. We know it’s an inconvenience, but we felt it was a great inconvenience not to warn people and to have them show up here stone cold and have no service.

BABA: Julie, you mentioned that there were several busloads of Occupy protesters on the picket line. What’s their relationship like?

CAINE: Until late last week, May Day organizers were calling for Occupy to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge on Tuesday. The union coalition worked with Occupy to shift gears and move that action to ferry terminals in support of this IBU strike. Samantha Levens is an IBU deckhand and an Occupy activist. She was at Tuesday’s strike, and I asked her about the relationship between the labor movement and the Occupy movement.
SAMANTHA LEVENS: What we're really trying to do is break down this narrative that there's the union and Occupy as two separate entities, where a lot of people in the labor movement also consider themselves to be part of the Occupy movement. So it's not even really about how are those two groups communicating, it's like they're both part of each other's movements within each other.
BABA: Does it look like the labor unions and Occupy will continue to work together?

CAINE: Alex Tonisson, who co-chairs the labor coalition, says their actions are always open to public support. He said union members were glad to have the Occupy folks show up for the strike on Tuesday, and that they were impressed that there was no violence at all.

BABA: So, Julie, what happens next with the negotiations?
CAINE: The District and the unions go back to the table on Monday. District officials say they’re optimistic about reaching an agreement, but the Teamsters say that if the healthcare premium issue isn’t resolved, they will strike on May 10, next Thursday, effectively shutting down Golden Gate Transit bus service for the day.