Question port authority

Bites always thinks of those violent clashes between police and dockworkers as just scenes from a romanticized labor history.

Not so. Take the story of Jason Ruffin and Aaron Harrison, two African-American longshoremen, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. On August 27, 2007, the two men were working unloading ships at the Port of Sacramento in West Sacramento. They were on loan from Local 10 in San Francisco.

The two were driving back from a lunch break when the private security guard at the gate at the entrance of the port told Harrison that he wanted to conduct a “security screening” of Harrison’s car—including a search of the trunk, glove box and an inspection underneath the car with a mirror. Bites was unable to reach Harrison and Ruffin for their version of what happened next, so this account is based on union representatives and law-enforcement officials.

By all accounts, Harrison and Ruffin balked at the security guard’s order. These sorts of stops and searches appear to be a sticking point with the union. The two men said they wanted to talk to their union representative back in San Francisco. Bear in mind that the ILWU, as an organization, has a strong distaste for heavy-handed security state stuff. The union loudly opposed the Patriot Act and has on occasion shut down ports to protest the war in Iraq. In fact, Local 10 members were shot by police with rubber bullets and wooden dowels during an anti-war demonstration at the Port of Oakland in 2003.

The union rep said no, security screenings are not in the contract. The men got back in the queue, and when the guard again asked to check the vehicle, Harrison and Ruffin refused, and also refused to move the car out of the line.

“At this point, there was still an easy solution,” says Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. The guard only needed to contact the union rep. Instead, the West Sacramento Police Department was called.

The police insisted that the men leave or submit to the search. The men refused. Soon Harrison ended up being removed from the car with a face full of pepper spray, handcuffed and taken to jail. Same for Ruffin, minus the pepper spray, and both men were charged with resisting arrest.

According to Yolo Deputy District Attorney Rob Gorman, both men were offered a “diversion program.” If Ruffin and Harrison would view a video and correctly answer some problems in a workbook, the resisting-arrest charges would be dropped. “It’s really not that hard,” Gorman explained, adding that he can’t remember anyone in Yolo County failing the test, except for one “white-supremacist guy” who answered every test question with the words, “F—- you! This government has no power over me.”

But the men refused to take the diversion option, because they and their union insisted that they did nothing wrong. On the contrary, the ILWU believes the West Sac PD had acted illegally.

“You can’t pepper spray and arrest people for showing up to work. You can’t treat people like that just because they don’t jump when you say jump,” said Camp. “Next time, call the union. Or call the Labor Council, and we’ll get it straightened out. That’s what we’re here for.”

Gorman is equally convinced that it didn’t have to come to this. “I think the militant-wing faction of this union has done these guys wrong,” Gorman said.

The case against Ruffin and Harrison will be heard on January 5 in Woodland. According to union officials, the ILWU has already spent $50,000 on the port pissing match. If found guilty, the men could end up spending a year in the Yolo County Jail.

And according to Camp, if the charges stick, federal rules could bar them from working in any port. And now it’s likely too late to avoid court. “That ship has sailed,” Gorman explained.