Protests against the Israeli bombing of Gaza erupted around the world but none had a more powerful impact than picketers in the port of Oakland, California in August and September. International calls for workers protest actions were made by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), as well as an urgent call for action by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee. Messages of support for labor action were sent to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 by dockworkers unions Spain and England. Longshoremen and Bay Area activists took the initiative to act in solidarity with the plight of Palestinians.
After an initial attempt on August 2, several thousand turned out for a rally called by the Block the Boat (BtB) coalition on Saturday August 16. However, this was not an action to stop the cargo operations with a picket line against the Zim Piraeus because Israeli-owned Zim Lines delayed the ship’s arrival, not surprisingly, to avoid the protests. Zim had done so during an Oakland protest in 2010. Instead, this was a spirited port rally as the ship stemmed the tide offshore. Leaders of BtB ended the rally, declaring a “victory” without further plans for picketing the ship’s docking later at Stevedore Services of America (SSA) Berth 57.
Independent Bay Area activists pressed for a picket and the following day, belatedly, BtB organizers acceded and called for a blockade on Sunday August 17, as the ship was docking at the SSA Terminal just in time for the night shift. A few hundred picketed the gates as longshore workers honored their picket line. The ship was not worked for that first shift. Subsequent picketing was done mainly by autonomous activists, some from Occupy’s remnants, others from BtB and the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee (TWSC). Again, ILWU members honored the lines, but picketers questioned where the BtB leadership was and why a call to mobilize pickets hadn’t gone out sooner? A head of steam picked up with longshore support to continue the picketing and stop the cargo operation with the successful picketing of each shift, day and night.
By August 19, Zim Lines’ anger had reached a boiling point. After three days of effective picketing with longshoremen honoring the line, the ship’s sailing board was set for the afternoon. But this ploy to deceive longshore workers and picketers didn’t work. TWSC received a heads up message that afternoon from a longshore supporter. Zim was moving ‘”the ship over to berth 22 tonight, inform everyone!!!”
Sure enough the Zim Piraeus let go lines at Berth 57 as if it were heading out to sea. Just outside the Golden Gate Bridge she made a U turn and headed to Ports America Berth 22 where pickets were already set up. However, this time rather than ordering longshoremen from the union hiring hall, Zim pulled a quickie as they had tried in 2010. They shifted longshore workers from another ship to the Zim ship. The longshore contract allows employers to shift gangs, but there was no contract. It had expired July 1. As maritime employers were hammering the union in concessionary bargaining, workers were free to do as they pleased. Some refused to be shifted. Others, coerced by company managers and union officials, worked the Zim Piraeus slowly, very slowly. One crane operator boasted barely any of the cargo was moved. Frustrated, Zim’s “flying Dutchman” shifted to Anchorage 9 awaiting berth. Finding none, she sailed 5:30PM August 20 for her next port of call, Vostochny, Russia.
This was a dramatic victory for those protesting the genocidal Zionist attack on Gaza. It inspired others to try to organize similar actions in ports in the U.S. and Canada. None clearly met with Oakland’s success. Some were able to delay the vessel an hour or so. Others simply informed longshore workers by leafleting. An “outside/inside” action requires the solidarity of longshore workers who discharge and load the containers. If they cross the picket line, use a side gate or enter when no pickets are present, the ship’s cargo will be worked. It’s not easy to build solid links with waterfront unions but Palestinian activists are trying.
Some activists wanted to picket Zim again in September, but the BtB leadership opposed the idea. So, the Stop Zim Action Committee (SZAC) was formed to picket the Zim Shanghai on September 27. Their picket line included three retired longshoremen who had been organizers of the ILWU’s 1984 anti-apartheid action, more than a dozen who had participated in the 2010 anti-Zim picket and four activists who had been on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla which was bloodily attacked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). All picketers wore their “battle scars” proudly.
Workers’ Action: The Most Powerful Solidarity
In 2009, the South African dockworkers union protested Zionist atrocities by refusing to unload the Israeli ship Johanna Russ in Durban. Similarly the Swedish dockworkers in 2010 protested the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) killings of humanitarian aid workers on board the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by refusing to work an Israeli ship. Anti-Zim protesters cite the 1984 anti-apartheid strike in San Francisco by longshoremen to show the ILWU’s history of solidarity actions. But that one and these other dockworker actions were organized by the workers themselves. They were not BDS actions with community picket lines. They were expressions of workers power! Howard Keylor, the 89-year- old retired longshoreman who made the longshore union motion will be the first to point that out.
Nor did the anti-Zim protest on the morning of September 27 require a picket line at the SSA terminal gate because longshore gangs didn’t show up to work the Zim Shanghai. An announcement was made at the hiring hall about the picketing. Only one union member took a dispatch slip to work Zim. This was longshore workers solidarity in action. Longshore workers are in a heated contract battle with their employers, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). Without a contract in place SSA had no recourse. So they offered a deal with the union. If, on the evening shift the jobs would be filled, the employers would make sure there was no police presence.
During the August and September protests against the Zim ships, the ILWU International officers issued erroneous statements to the press that the longshoremen weren’t going to work because the pickets posed a threat and ILWU hadn’t taken a position on Zionist oppression of Palestinians. http://www.labournet.net/docks2/1410/TWSC1.html
However, the Local 10 president explained that ILWU’s experience has been that in protest situations like this and the 2003 anti-war protests in the port the police are the threat not the protesters. He was referring to then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s OPD opening fire with so-called non-lethal weapons on anti-war protesters and longshore workers alike. This cost the city over $2,000,000 paid to victims of the police attack including ILWU Local 10. This act of police brutality was listed in the UN’s annual report on human rights.
So, the deal was sealed between the union and SSA. All the jobs were filled on the evening dispatch and the police were removed by SSA from the vicinity of the terminal. Longshoremen informed the pickets about the union/SSA deal, assuring them that Local 10 would honor the line. With no police to violate free speech rights, picketers blocked the main gate with cars and pickets. Longshoremen saw the picket line, drove to another terminal and stood by with their union official. With no longshore workers the Zim Shanghai couldn’t be worked. Not one container was moved after two full shifts. Zim sent her down to LA. Irate Zionists were calling for the arrest of the protesters but to no avail.
One must view these Zim protests in the context of ILWU’s militant history. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABosvjawnj4 The ILWU initiated class struggle actions for social justice– to free Angela Davis in 1972 and Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1999, for justice for Oscar Grant’s family in 2010, to protest the police brutality against WTO protesters in Seattle also in 1999, to show solidarity with besieged Wisconsin state workers in 2011, refusing to load military cargo to the juntas in Chile and El Salvador in the 1970’s and ‘80’s and on May Day 2008 shut down all West Coast ports calling for an end to the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of these union actions was contingent on “community support” but many were bolstered by community mobilizations. The first anti-Israeli job action by a union in the U.S. was in 2010 by Local 10 in Oakland in which the TWSC played a leading role. Protesting the IDF killings on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the action depended on support from the San Francisco Labor Council, PGFTU and a mobilization of Palestinian activists. Some 1,200 protesters picketed SSA gates as longshoremen honored the picket line based on the “health and safety” provision of the contract.
BDS Won’t End Israeli Occupation – It Didn’t Bring Down South African Apartheid
The BDS call for an ongoing boycott of all Israeli shipping is illusory, misguided and would, in reality, undermine international labor solidarity, aside from penalizing Oakland longshore workers who have already sacrificed wages by supporting the protests. Even the BDS in Palestine does not support an ongoing ship boycott. And what of Palestinians who work for Israeli companies in Israel and in Palestinian territories. Should they quit their jobs or demand the companies close? Consumer boycotts have proven ineffective and cultural boycotts would prevent anti-Zionist professors from speaking at Israeli universities. In the U.S. and Canada professors of Palestinian descent are increasingly under attack by Zionists for their pro-Palestinian views and must be defended. The other two pillars of the BDS campaign are based on illusions that capitalists and their imperialist government’s can be made to withdraw support for the proxy that does their bloody bidding in the Near East, the Zionist state of Israel. The imperialist U.S. government, the biggest war criminal of all, sends over $3 billion dollars in military aid to Israel. BDS won’t stop that.
The racist South African apartheid regime was brought down not by a liberal BDS campaign but especially by waves of militant strikes by the black working class. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) continues that class struggle today by giving no support to the ANC Tripartite government responsible for the 2012 massacre of striking Marikana miners. They call for building a workers party to advance the struggle and nationalize the mines under workers control.
A serious working class program to end Zionist depredation of the Palestinian people would require Palestinian and Israeli workers linking up in a struggle against their common enemies, the Israeli and Arab capitalists to end the blockade of Gaza and illegal Israeli settlements, to tear down the West Bank “apartheid wall” and the exclusionary, inherently anti-democratic Zionist state. The right of return for Palestinians can only be won on a socialist basis of sharing the checkerboard land of interpenetrated peoples. The call must go beyond freeing, isolated Bantustans in Gaza and the West Bank and for a single workers state, a socially integrated Palestine, as part of a socialist federation of the Near East.
Already Israeli port workers in Haifa have struck twice in October against the capitalists’s port privatization plans. And the racist Netanyahu’s expansionist settlements and anti-Islamist provocations in Jerusalem must be stopped. But how? In the early stages of the Israeli state, Palestinian and Israeli workers engaged in joint strikes against their bosses. And it was not that long ago that ostensibly Marxist Palestinian parties existed where now Islamist and nationalist parties dominate. That political landscape can change through a common class struggle of the Palestinian and Israeli workers against their common oppressors backed up by real international labor solidarity in action.
Solidarity to Stop Zionist Attacks and Defend ILWU Against PMA
The actions of Oakland longshore workers in solidarity with their sisters and brothers under the Zionist guns in Palestine is a vivid proof of the power of workers solidarity action. If these actions are to be repeated on the West Coast and around the world, then it is high time to use that power in support of ILWU longshore workers as they face the PMA bosses’ offensive of harassment and arbitrary firings. They supported the protesters picket lines. Now the protesters must offer to mobilize support if longshore workers set up picket lines in their struggle. Union waterfront workers have the power and they should use it now to smash the PMA’s union-busting offensive. But the ILWU International leadership has abandoned its union’s proud legacy of the working class fighting to defend its own interests and those of all the oppressed, as indicated by their press statements distancing union support for the anti-Zim protesters. What’s needed above all is a union leadership committed to mobilizing the power of class struggle rather than seeking refuge in the dead-end of class collaboration. The way to forge that leadership is in the heat of the labor battles which are now upon us.
Jack Heyman, chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, is a retired Oakland longshoreman. He has helped organize many of the ILWU dock protests since the 1984 anti-apartheid boycott action.