Oakland port work halted again on Sunday

"I went to work today and then I was fired today," Trent Willis told KTVU, of how his Sunday morning shift was cut short, and he and a few hundred other workers were sent home. "We were basically fired for taking a twenty minute break!" Willis exclaimed.

Willis said about two hours of headway had been made on weeks of backed-up cargo: some of it waiting on docks, some on ships.

Just before 10 am, an issue cropped up: whether workers should stagger their breaks or take their breaks all at once, what is commonly called a "unit break."

"We were told over the radio that if we took a unit break we would all be fired," explained Willlis, "even though that's what it says to do in our contract."

"It is a bitter disappointment for the Port of Oakland", port spokesman Mike Zampa told KTVU, "and this is happening at one port, the Port of Oakland, not at the 28 other U.S. west coast ports."

In a statement the Pacific Maritime Association said "an area arbitrator" ruled the unit breaks, "illegal work stoppages" resulting in "port operations being shut down" during the day shift.

Workers were being called in again for the night shift, but there was no certainty the dispute over breaks wouldn't flare again.

Trucks lined up, their drivers hopeful they would be allowed to unload.

"I'm going to charge them regardless," truck driver Lisandro Vieyra told KTVU, alongside his load of frozen chicken intended for overseas shipment. "If they don't accept it, and I take it back, I'm gonna charge the shippers for that."

The new wrinkle over breaks, on the heels of a tentative agreement Friday night, could further damage Oakland's reputation with cargo owners.

"If they're fed up with incidents like this one, they may decide to move permanently away from Oakland and then jobs here are at risk," declared Zampa, "and our customers have suffered business losses already, now they're asked to take another hit? This just isn't right."

The shippers and the workers seem to have a fractious labor history, which the tentative labor agreement could not soothe.

"Often they'll do something on the job which will cause us to do something, and then blame us for it, " claimed WIllis, who has worked on the waterfront for 22 years.

"I've never seen a happy relationship between the two parties," he admitted.

Workers like Willis, "fired" on Sunday lost pay for that shift only, and can still be called back for future shifts on the docks.