"Occupy Oakland" strike gains big labor support

A man walks past the Occupy Oakland encampment, Nov. 1, 2011, in Oakland, Calif. AP Photo/Ben Margot

OAKLAND, Calif. - A widely anticipated strike Wednesday by anti-Wall Street demonstrators in Oakland is expected to get a big boost from organized labor and established advocacy groups whose grievances range from school closures and waning union benefits to home foreclosures and cuts to libraries and services for the disabled.

The unions representing Oakland's public school teachers, community college instructors, city government workers and University of California, Berkeley teaching assistants have endorsed the broad-based call to action that is expected to include marches, pickets outside banks and an attempt to shut down the Port of Oakland in the evening.

However, the city's police union in an open letter Tuesday slammed Mayor Jean Quan for her "flip-flop" stance on the city's Occupy Wall Street protests, questioning her motives and why the city plans to beef up its police presence at strike-related events while giving other city workers leeway to participate.

"Is it the city's intention to have city employees on both sides of a skirmish line?" the letter said.

The scathing letter comes one week after police were asked to clear the protesters' encampment during an early morning raid, only to have Quan allow the protesters to reclaim the plaza outside City Hall the next day by tearing down fences protecting the lawn.

The raid, along with the tear gas-clouded standoff with marchers that night, led to about 100 arrests and other law enforcement actions related to the protest including an Iraq War veteran receiving a fractured skull during one clash.

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Last Tuesday alone cost Oakland $1 million, said Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland police union. He said that police are now confused about Quan's stance heading into Wednesday.

"What was last Tuesday all about? The mayor is painting us as the bad guys in all of this," Arotzarena told The Associated Press. "We get one order one day and then she flip-flops the next day. We're going to be seen as the establishment, and it's not fair to the police, it's not fair to anyone.

"We're set to fail on this."

Quan said in a statement Tuesday that she hoped Wednesday's strike would be peaceful and that she was working with interim Police Chief Howard Jordan to ensure that the protesters issues are "front and center."

"The pro-99 percent activists — whose cause I support — will have the freedom to get their message across without the conflict that marred last week's events," Quan said. "Although getting the balance right is never an easy task, in Oakland we are committed to honoring free speech and protecting public safety."

As Oakland has become an epicenter for the Wall Street movement, demonstrators in other cities including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia planned to hold solidarity actions on Wednesday.

Although Wednesday's event in Oakland was not scheduled with sufficient time to permit other unions to seek strike authorizations, local union representatives said Tuesday their members were being encouraged to participate by taking the day off or joining the activities after work.

The staffs at two Oakland elementary schools and a small high school had decided to close their campuses for the day as of Tuesday afternoon, Oakland Education Association Secretary Steve Neat said. At least 182 school district employees, the vast majority classroom teachers, had asked to be replaced with substitutes on Wednesday, Neat said.

"All of these different problems — foreclosures, schools closing, attacks on labor unions — they all basically stem from the fact that the top 1 percent and corporations are never satisfied to just make profit. Their profits need to go up and up every year," Neat said. "It's sort of a realization that a lot of people are having that we've all been fighting our own issues, but really, it's all related, it's all the same issue."

City officials also have agreed to allow "nonessential" government workers to use vacation, personal or furlough days to participate in the strike, city workers also have been told they can leave early, at 3 or 4 p.m. depending on when their days started, said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

"The idea we have worked out with the city is they won't deny people the (time-off) request for Wednesday unless they are part of essential services, like nurses and police officers and paramedics," Stallone said. "It was a discussion, but you know how the city is. On one hand, they really support this. On the other hand, they have to balance their stuff. They came around."

In its open letter, the Oakland police union also asked demonstrators to remember that "We, too, are the 99% fighting for better working conditions, fair treatment and the ability to provide a living for our children and families. We are severely understaffed with many city beats remaining unprotected by police during the day and evening hours."

The president and executive director of the Port of Oakland, the nation's fifth-busiest port, issued a similar plea in advance of the possible shutdown, which Occupy Oakland organizers scheduled in sympathy with longshoremen in Washington state who have been picketing a grain transport facility.

"It is our privilege, indeed our right in this country, to peacefully assemble and freely express our grievances to government," the letter signed by port President Pamela Calloway and Executive Director Omar Benjamin read. "And it is our responsibility as Oaklanders to ensure that our city is a safe and peaceful place to live and work."

Union members could recognize the Occupy demonstration as a picket line and refuse to cross it on Wednesday night, said Stan Woods, a spokesman for the longshoremen's union in Oakland.

Depending on the size of the protest, an arbitrator also could be brought in to determine if port workers can safely do their jobs, Woods said.

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