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Students, Activists Sued for Blocking Port With Protest

By Rinat Fried, The Recorder, February 27, 1998

OAKLAND -- When a handful of Laney College students travelled to the Port of Oakland last September to support a group of striking dockworkers a half-world away, the last thing they expected was to be sued for demonstrating.

Yet that's exactly what happened when maritime officials, furious that the picket line had prevented longshoreworkers from unloading a just-docked ship, hit the demostrators with a suit claiming damages from the three-day protest.

On Thursday, the protesters demonstrated again, this time in front of Alameda County Superior Court, arguing the suit violates their right to political participation and demanding it be withdrawn.

Named in the suit are student members of the school's Labor Studies Club, two union activists and two political parties.

"To be sued for engaging in peaceful, legal activity, to have your teacher told to turn over the names of any students who you know were out there is a little scary," said Albert Lannon, chairman of the Laney College labor studies department.

The Pacific Maritime Association and co-plaintiffs are suing the picketers individually in Alameda County Superior Court for damages that could total as much as $300,000 allegedly sustained when the local longshoreworkers refused to cross the picket line and unload perishable cargo from the ship Neptune Jade.

The PMA is an organization of West Coast stevedores, marine terminal operators and steamship companies. Co-plaintiffs in Yusen Terminals Inc., Centennial Stevedoring Services, and Pacific Maritime Association v. Robert Irminger, 789300-7, are the operator of the Oakland terminal and the local dockworkers' company.

PMA says that demonstrators broke the law by blocking an entrance to the Port of Oakland

terminal, and that the demonstrators' unruly behavior made it impossible for the port to conduct its business.

"There were railroad ties piled in front of the terminals, glass debris and they were forcing trucks to turn around and not enter the premises," says Josephine Parr, manager for operations at PMA. "It completely disrupted and stopped any type of work there."

PMA and its co-plaintiffs are demanding the names of all the participants in the demonstration, including the names of the Laney students who attended.

But demonstrators are howling in protest, saying the picket was legal. They say they gathered to support striking dockworkers in Liverpool, England, after nonunion replacement workers in Liverpool loaded the Neptune Jade -- a fact that PMA now disputes.

"If I protest Shell Oil because of their support for the Nigerian government, Shell Oil does not have the right to sue me because I have hurt their business," says Dan Siegel, an attorney for defendant Robert Irminger, a union activist, by way of example. "I don't understand the difference between that example, and what Irminger did. He picketed in order to promote his political message, which is that longshoremen and workers should refuse to deal with this cargo from Liverpool."

The defendants are also calling the name-finding mission a "witch hunt," and have filed so-called anti-SLAPP motions to stop the litigation.

A hearing is scheduled on those motions for March 3 in Superior Court Judge Henry Needham Jr.'s courtroom.

"The truth is that it was very peaceful and orderly," says Robert Remar, attorney for one of the two union activists named in the complaint.

Labor attorneys say that unions can't be held liable for damages caused by a picket unless the picketers were violent or vandalized property.

But lawyers for PMA are relying in their court briefs on established case law which states that "violence, intimidation, obstruction of ingress and egress" aren't constitutionally protected. In court papers, PMA likens its case to Allred v. Shawley, 232 Cal.App.3d 1489 (1991), in which an appellate court said that abortion protesters did not have a free speech right to block access to an abortion clinic.

PMA says the protesters intimidated the longshoremen from working at the site by handing out leaflets that read "Crossing Picket Lines Can Be Dangerous to Your Health."

The defendants and several hundred supporters from unions from as far away as Oregan demonstrated Thursday -- this time in front of the Alameda County courthouse where their case is being heard, to demand that PMA drop the case.

They have also solicited signatures of support from dozens of left-leaning luminaries such as MIT professor Noam Chomsky, former Gov. Jerry Brown, and playwright Tony Kushner, and have published the names of their supporters in ads in local newspapers.

Parr, the PMA spokeswoman, says her company's motives have been misunderstood.

"Our intention was to recover our damages and hold people responsible for their illegal actions," she said. "We are not trying to intimidate anyone."

Parr also points out that her company's position was vindicated early in the fight when Superior Court Judge Sandra Margulies granted them an injunction prohibiting protestors from blocking access to the terminal shortly after the picket began.

"This is not about free speech," she said. "We wholeheartedly support free speech; but not illegal demonstrations."

And Parr says PMA will not drop the Laney students, who have not yet retained a lawyer, from the suit.

"Just because you are a college student doesn't allow you to break the law," she said.