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A Personal Account from the Oakland Waterfront

The Picket of the Zim Piraeus

by PETER TURNER

I am one of the “autonomous activists” referred to in the press releases of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.  I am not affiliated with any of the groups listed as endorsers on the AROC website.  I am an experienced waterfront activist who participated in every picket while the Zim Piraeus was in port.

The original call for a blockage of a Zim ship went out from AROC in late July, but that was quickly retracted and the August 16 date was substituted.  We then watched the ship on tracking websites and it became clear it was delayed while the protest situation unfolded.

During that time tactical differences emerged within the movement.  AROC changed their call and instead advocated a march to Pier 57, where the ship was due to dock, on Saturday August 16 for a protest against the war on Gaza.  The march also raised the issue of the situation in Ferguson, Mo. as related, at least partly because the march was met by a contingent of Oakland police.  The march was energetic but peaceful, but the ship was still at sea.  About two thousand participated.

When the Zim Piraeus finally docked on August  17 it was met by pickets at Pier 57.  We ascertained which gates would be used by trucks and longshoremen entering to work and posted pickets there.  Our intention was to discourage any cargo operations so as to force the ship to leave port.  While truck traffic entered, the longshoremen honored our pickets.  The Oakland Police and Alameda County Sheriff Department created openings at the gates.

The pickets could be generally described as Occupy Oakland activists, mostly young; experienced left militants who abound in the San Francisco Bay Area; and those specifically concerned with the war on Gaza, many of them Palestinians.  Others might describe us differently, but I think this is a good description of most of us.  Implications or assumptions that AROC or any other organization led the picket effort are inaccurate.

For four days we met at the pier and succeeded.   A small number of activists were arrested for civil disobedience, but the situation was peaceful.  The longshoremen honored our pickets and no cargo moved.

The union released statements that they took no position on the political issues at hand, but felt the police presence created a safety hazard.  This is connected to a 2003 antiwar demonstration at the port at which the police attacked peaceful demonstrators and longshoremen reporting to work, and shot them.  Resentment over that continues.  During the picket we were aware that few dispatches from the union hall occurred.

Several times small groups of longshoremen approached or assembled nearby.  We engaged them in conversation and relations were friendly.  The ranks shared the official union position, but went beyond it to express sympathy for our cause and resentment of the stevedoring companies.

Coincidentally, the union and stevedoring companies are in contentious contract negotiations.  The ILWU contract expired July 1, so the longshoremen are working without a contract.  As a result, longshoremen who honored our pickets lost pay, a fact known by the picketers.  This added to the solidarity created between the picketers and longshoremen, something pre-existing because of the militant history of the ILWU and its tradition of honoring community pickets.

After four days the ship announced its intention to sail.  No cargo had been moved, in spite of a public declaration by Israeli sources that it had.  AROC Executive Director Lara Kiswani appeared on the morning of the fourth day to announce a victory, praising the solidarity of the longshoremen.  The ship sailed, but then the ship’s pilot pulled a U-turn at the pilot station off the Golden Gate.  The ship returned to dock at pier 22-24 and was quickly met by pickets who had monitored its movements.

Since the longshoremen had made it obvious that they would honor our pickets, the ILWU Local 10 Business Agent took longshoremen from other ships and moved them to the Zim Piraeus.  This was a violation of the dispatch rules and the solidarity felt by the ranks, so a reaction ensued.  I would politely call it a lack of enthusiasm for the work on the part of the rank and file, but the result was a minimum of cargo offloaded, reportedly some perishables.

On the morning of August 20, the fifth day of this action, at about 6:30 AM, the ship departed after an hour of picketing.  For some reason the media reported the cargo had been offloaded and the ship departed at 8:45.  That is inaccurate, as I drove home from the picket at pier 22-24 to view the ship from my house as it anchored off Hunter’s Point in San Francisco Bay about 8 AM.  The ship was still fully loaded and had not backloaded any containers.  See attached photos.  They aren’t the clearest, but they are accurate and show the truth.

This entire action showed several lessons:

The concerted effort of dedicated militants together with the solidarity of the affected workers can bring serious economic and political pressure to bear.  Reciprocal solidarity will be forthcoming, a strong message to any employer seeking to weaken the ILWU.  We all talked about it, with no dissent.

We should never trust the word of the employer or the establishment press.  They collude to undermine the majority and deceive the public in the interest of profit.

We should be wary of the motives of entrenched union bureaucrats, too many of whom have instinctive sympathy with employers and will betray the interests of their members.  The union is the rank and file, and democracy and consciousness are necessary for their interests to be furthered.

There are tactical differences within our movement, and we should tend to defer to the judgment of those who put in the commitment to participate and who make the connection to the affected workers.  Bureaucracy exists on the left as well as in unions, government, or any other institution.

We should show wisdom in our strategy and tactics, but not retreat in the face of adversity and have the courage to fight and win.  Together we can make a better world.

This article originally appeared in Green Left Press in Australia.