ILWU leads fight to save Seattle waterfront jobs

The Seattle City Council in May rejected a proposal for building a new sports arena designed to attract a National Basketball Association team to the city.

The new arena was to be built in a section of the city known as South of Downtown, or SoDo.

Its construction would have required the closure and privatization of a one of the main public streets providing access to the Port of Seattle, where about 1000 longshore workers are employed.

The street closure would have clogged traffic leading to and from the port, which would have diverted cargo to other ports costing hundreds of longshore workers their jobs.

That prospect led International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 19 to oppose the project from its beginning.

“This fight was always about finding the best location for a new stadium – which never should have been in SoDo,” said John Persak, president of the ILWU’s Puget Sound District Council, who helped coordinate the fight.

Persak said that the union played a leading role in building a “diverse community” of opposition to the proposed new sports arena.

The fight began four years ago when Chris Hansen, a hedge fund owner, and a crop of local developers proposed building the Seattle Arena in SoDo.

Seattle had lost its NBA franchise, the Sonics, in 2008, and Hansen and his partners were hoping that a new state-of-the-art arena would attract another NBA team looking for a new home.

In 2011 they proposed to build a new arena in SoDo at a cost of $490 million, $200 million of which would be paid by the city.

The proposal also included a reconfiguration of the SoDo section where the new arena would be located.

In addition to the new arena, which would include a slew of luxury seating to accommodate Seattle’s swells, Hansen planned to build nearby upscale shops and restaurants, encouraging gentrification and changing the complexion of SoDo, an industrial area near the port.

In order to realize Hansen’s vision, Occidental Avenue, a main thoroughfare leading to the port, would have to be privatized so that it could be closed.

Closing Occidental would snarl traffic leading to Terminal 46 of the port delaying the movement of goods coming to and from the terminal.

The resulting delays would have diverted cargo to other ports, hurting Port of Seattle business and eliminating jobs.

Concerns about the impact on good-paying jobs led the leaders and members of ILWU Local 19 to take a stand against the proposal.

The union used its political influence and ties to the community to build community opposition to the proposal.

More than 100 ILWU members attended meetings and spoke at hearings on the project.

A key City Council vote on the arena project took place on May 2.

The vote was on whether to sell Occidental to Hansen and his partners.

In a 5-4 vote, the City Council voted not to sell.

City Council member Kshama Sawant voted against selling the street to Hansen.

“I do want to help bring back the Sonics, but I cannot do that on the basis of undermining our working waterfront and good-paying unionized industrial jobs,’’ said Sawant to the Seattle Times.

Sawant added that she wanted to stand in solidarity with ILWU members who had been leading the fight to maintain good-paying, unionized jobs.

The five council members who voted against selling the street to Hansen were all women.

Their stance drew a spate of misogynistic hate mail from basketball fans like this one from  Jason Feldman.

“As women, I understand that you spend a lot of your time trying to please others (mostly on your knees) but I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves. Each of you should rot in hell for what you took from me yesterday.”

Feldman’s missive was a mild rebuke compared to other mail that the women received. Feldman later apologized for his letter.

Hansen was taken aback by the vote and said that he a his partners would regroup and look at their options for going forward.

ILWU’s Persak said that he was happy with vote, but warned that the fight to preserve good-paying union jobs wasn’t over.

“We’ll have to remain vigilant to make sure our support from the Council remains solid because the pressure from the political establishment to build in SoDo is enormous,” he said.

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