Blockade: Dockers respond to Israel’s Flotilla Massacre and Gaza Siege
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
Three weeks after the massacre on the Freedom Flotilla, ILWU dockworkers in the San Francisco Bay area delayed an Israeli Zim Lines ship for 24 hours, the Swedish Dockworkers Union began a week-long blockade of Israeli ships and containers, dockers in the Port of Cochin, India, refused to handle Israeli cargo, and the Turkish dockworkers union Liman-Is announced their members would refuse to service any Israeli shipping. In South Africa, Durban dockers had already boycotted a Zim Lines ship in response to the invasion of Gaza last year.
On the 5th Anniversary of the United Palestinian Call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, Israel faces the prospect of targetted industrial action to implement boycotts. How did it happen, what does it mean, and how can the solidarity movement respond to the new opening?
At 5am on Sunday 20th June, 800 trade unionists and Palestine solidarity activists from the San Francisco Bay Area marched to the SSA (Stevedoring Services of America) terminal at Berths 57-58 in the Port of Oakland, where the “Zim Shenzhen” was due. Zim Lines is the main Israeli shipping company, with services connecting Israel to the world. The ship sailed from Haifa, calling at Piraeus, Livorno, Genoa, Tarragona, Halifax, New York, Savannah, Kingston, Panama Canal, Los Angeles before reaching Oakland.
When longshore workers turned up for the day shift a mass demo was in place at four gates chanting “Free, Free Palestine, Don’t You Cross Our Picket Line”. . .“An Injury to One is An Injury to All, Bring Down the Apartheid Wall”. . .“Open the Siege, Close the Gate, Israel is a Terrorist State”. . . As union members spoke to drivers, pickets sat down in front of cars. The San Francisco Labor Council and the Alameda County Labor Council had passed their own resolutions and mobilised hundreds of trade unionists to back the demo called by the Labor Community Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It was an unprecedented show of strength from the local and regional AFL-CIO, affiliated unions and their members side by side with Palestinian and Arab-American activists. The Gaza ships were originally organised by Paul Larudee from San Francisco, and Bay Area residents had sailed with him. Now everyone came together for a united action organised in just two weeks.
Local 10 and Local 34 (clerical) are militant sections of the International Longshore Workers Union. The ILWU organises longshore (dockers) and many other industrial sectors on the US West Coast and Hawaii. With a history stretching back to 1934, the ILWU has faced the employers in countless disputes on the docks, carried out industrial solidarity action with other workers, fought against racism, adopted resolutions which characterize the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as “state-sponsored terrorism”, and on May 1st 2008 shut down every port on the US West Coast against the war in Iraq. Labor laws in the U. S. like the Taft-Hartley Act make it illegal for unions to organize solidarity actions.
The Oakland longshore workers arrived for the day shift and refused to cross the picket line on grounds of “health and safety”. The Pacific Maritime Association, on behalf of the employer SSA, immediately called in the Arbitrator (a joint union-management procedure for first-line response to disputes on the docks) hoping he would order everyone to work. The Arbitrator considered the PMA demand that the police use force to open access through the picket line, to make it “safe” for workers to enter the terminal. The union argued that the Oakland police are a threat to the security of workers and demonstrators. In 2003, as the U. S. attacked Iraq, Oakland police fired so-called “non lethal” weapons at longshore workers and anti-war demonstrators alike, injuring scores and sending many to hospital.
The Arbitrator agreed with the union. As per their contract, the dockers were sent home with pay for standing by, however the employers have refused to abide by the Arbitrator’s decision and have paid out nothing, leaving the issue in dispute.
The “Zim Shenzen” had left Los Angeles around 2:30pm Saturday, and could have could have arrived at the San Francisco pilot station in as little as 18 hours, plus 2 hours to the dock. The ship’s tracking system was removed from the nautical GPS system, leaving the demo guessing when it would arrive. But with several hundred marching at 5:30am swelling to 800 as the morning progressed, the company decided to hold up the docking until 6pm. By then, SSA Terminal realised that the mass picket line would return for the evening shift and the Arbitrator would make the same decision, so they gave up and prudently chose not to call longshoremen to report for work. The ship sat at the quay, untouched. Establishing the mass picket line early and preventing longshoremen and clerks from working the terminal was critical in this victory.
This was the first ever boycott of an Israeli ship by workers in the US, where Zionism has counted on influencing the traditional stance of the mainstream labor movement, as well as elected politicians.
“An Injury to One is An Injury to All” is the slogan of the ILWU. It is also an emblem for South African workers.
The “Zim” action was recognised as a direct echo of Local 10’s fight against apartheid in 1984, when members refused to work South African steel and coal for 11 days until the employer obtained a Federal injunction to break the boycott. Interviewed on video during the “Zim” picket, Local 10 Executive Board member Clarence Thomas stated:
“This is a historic occasion. Everyone remembers the action taken by the community and labor in 1984 at Pier 80 in San Francisco, where the “Nedlloyd Kimberley” was picketed.”
Retired Local 10 longshore worker Howard Keylor, a co-organiser of that action, recalled:
“This was the result of over a decade of education within the Local on the horrors of the South African apartheid regime. South Africa arrested the entire leadership of the black miners union (the National Union of Mineworkers) and charged them with treason, and was threatening to execute them. I made the motion in Local 10, which passed unanimously, not to work the cargo in the next ship that came in. It was the longshore courage in deliberately violating the Taft-Hartley law and the union contract that made that successful.”
Clarence Thomas set out the current strategy:
“People are lacking food, people cannot rebuild in Gaza, construction supplies are not allowed. They haven’t even been allowing chewing gum! The thing that is going to make Israel and the United States both understand that this cannot continue, is the whole question of commerce and trade. Israel is very vulnerable on that question. This was critical in building the mobilisation in 1984 against apartheid, with three prongs: Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment.”
Jack Heyman, also from the Local 10 Executive Board:
“If longshoremen decide they’re not going to cross the picket line, then the Zim ship that’s coming in is not going to be worked, and that’s going to be repeated around the world, in Norway, Sweden, South Africa. I think people are beginning to understand that the Israeli government is going to have to be sent a message loud and clear, that their policies towards the Palestinian people are unjust and they’re going to suffer the consequences. It’s not business as usual when they commit acts of murder like this.”
Monadel Herzallah, of the Arab American Union Members Council summed up the impact on the labour movement:
“It’s indeed a significant turning point in the work with labour, and it’s significant because ILWU has honoured our picket line, it is something that we cherish, that we think will make an impact not only in the United States of America but also worldwide. The Labor Councils in Alameda and in San Francisco, responded to the call by encouraging labor unions, members, activists, to support this, with dozens of other community organisations who have worked to make this picket successful. People have wanted to tell this government and the government of Israel that they cannot be above the law, they have to be held accountable for what they did against these unarmed civilians on the flotilla ship in the Mediterranean.”
Palestinian unions appeal
On 7 June, the Palestinian trade union movement had produced a united appeal to dockworkers unions worldwide. It was signed by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), the General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW), the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (IFU), and 11 other Palestinian union and labour movement organisations. It concluded
“Gaza today has become the test of our universal morality and our common humanity. During the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the world was inspired by the brave and principled actions of dockworkers unions who refused to handle South African cargo, contributing significantly to the ultimate fall of apartheid. Today, we call on you, dockworkers unions of the world, to do the same against Israel’s occupation and apartheid. This is the most effective form of solidarity to end injustice and uphold universal human rights.”
This appeal was doubly significant. It gave the basis for dockers to respond, knowing that the call came from fellow workers. And, it showed exceptional unity on the Palestinian side, a big step in its own right.
The joint union appeal developed the call from the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) issued on 1 June, which included:
We call specifically on transport and dock workers and unions around the globe to: Refuse to load/offload Israeli ships and airplanes, following the historic example set by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) in Durban in February 2009 and endorsed by the Maritime Union of Australia (Western Australia).
The ILWU Local 10 Executive Board met on 8 June, and heard from members of the San Francisco Labour Council, a Palestinian speaker and solidarity activists. The Board unanimously adopted an Executive motion citing the Palestinian union appeal which they had received, and noting that the flotilla massacre had been condemned by the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and British union UNITE. The Executive motion joined in condemning the massacre and concluded with a “call for unions to protest by any action they choose to take”.
The ILWU also noted that Swedish Dockworkers were planning an action, scheduled to begin on 15 June.
Even before the Palestinian unions issued their appeal, the Swedish Dockworkers Union had announced plans for a week-long blockade of all trade with Israel. The union is a key member of the International Dockworkers Council formed during the Liverpool dockers battle from 1995 – 1998 to regain their jobs after being sacked for refusing to cross a picket line. Former Liverpool dockers and Swedish dockers discussed the possibilities for action and alerted the IDC and its affiliated unions when the Palestinian BNC made contact through BDS activists in both countries on 31 May.
The Swedish Dockworkers Union set out the aims of the blockade and discussed strategy in detailed briefings to the membership and press articles.
Their blockade was designed to last one week, a temporary measure to be evaluated with the possibility of further action. It aimed to influence the Israeli government to:
“1. Lift the illegal and inhuman blockade of Gaza, which has been going on for over three years.
“2. Allow an independent, international inquiry into Israel’s boarding of the Freedom Flotilla (of which the Swedish Ship to Gaza was a member) in international waters, when nine people were killed and at least 48 people were injured. The requirements are clearly defined and conform fully with the demands that the UN and the EU have made to Israel.”
After the initial announcement, the employers’ association “Ports of Sweden” threatened to sue individual union members, deduct from their wages, and demand compensation for participation in the blockade. The dockworkers postponed their action for a week, to dovetail with plans by the Norwegian Transportworkers Union. The Palestinian unions issued their appeal and Sweden would now be acting in response. In the event, the Norwegian blockade did not take place – yet – but Sweden went ahead.
“From the 23rd of June we will no longer handle containers with Israeli wines, vegetables or fruits branded Jaffa, Carmel or Top, vegetarian pre-fabricated foods from Tivall or the carbonation-machine Soda Stream. Neither will we contribute to the Swedish export of Volvo buses, which were used by Israel to transport hundreds of human right activists from the Freedom Flotilla to Israeli prisons.”
The union was directly involved in the original plans for the Swedish Ship to Gaza, which the dockworkers intended to load for free. When the “Sofia” was eventually purchased jointly with a Greek solidarity organisation, the Swedish Dockworkers were in touch with the Greek Port Workers Union who loaded “Sofia” with electric wheelchairs and cement at the port of Pireus, free of charge. The Swedish also approached the IDC to ask affiliates to protect and handle voluntarily all ships carrying supplies to Gaza.
Björn Borg, Chairperson of the Swedish Dockworkers Union, and Erik Helgeson, Ombudsman, local 4 Gothenburg, stressed the significance of the Flotilla.
“We could see how the eyes of the world were finally turned towards the isolated population of Gaza. Even the night before the Israeli military violently stormed the Freedom Flotilla, this international initiative had done more to bring attention to the catastrophic situation of the people of Gaza, than all the diplomatic moves, declarations and resolutions put forward in recent years. That also inspires us and our colleagues in ports around the world to take action.”
When the blockade began, the dockers identified and isolated 10 containers full of goods to or from Israel. Erik Helgeson commented:
“We thought the flow of goods would be much lower considering the blockade has been announced for twenty days. Our ambition is of course that our action can be one of many grassroots initiatives that will keep the eyes of the world focused on the 800, 000 children living isolated in Gaza. The Palestinian civilian population must be allowed to rebuild their economy, their infrastructure and freely integrate with the rest of the world. The war on Gaza and Israel’s brutal blockade have made all this impossible for over three years.”
As the Swedish began their blockade, news emerged that the dockworkers union Liman-Is intended to join the fast growing movement for boycott sweeping through all levels of society after the murder of Turkish aid volunteers aboard the “Mavi Marmara”. Alongside the Physicians’ Association of Turkey and the Chamber of Agricultural Engineers, the Liman-Is Central Committee stated:
“. . . The attack that was protested throughout the world and condemned harshly by the UN also brought people out to the streets in Turkey. The government’s announcements indicate that further sanctions against Israel are to be expected.
“However, Israel needs to be answered not only through the channels of government, but through all institutions and social organizations, most of all, through NGO’s and unions.
“Our union Liman-Is, has decided to boycott the ships from Israel, which has become a machine of death and torture. In the framework, no member of our union will give service to Israel in any docks where we are organized.
“Liman-Is union invites all unions and NGO’s organized in our country and throughout the world to join this boycott and protest campaign.”
Turning this declaration into an actual boycott will require the active involvement of other unions in Turkish ports.
A few days before the Oakland action, unions in the Port of Cochin, in the state of Kerala, India, had agreed to boycott Israeli ships and cargo. The boycott began on June 17 on receipt of information that cargo unloaded at Colombo Port from Israeli ship m/v Zim Livorno was bound to arrive at Cochin Port in a feeder vessel. Similar consignments unloaded at Colombo from Israeli ships were set to arrive in feeder vessels.
On June 23, trade unions held a joint protest rally in Cochin Port near the office of Zim Integrated Shipping Services (India) Pvt Ltd – the Israeli shipping line. Addressing the rally B Hamza, general secretary of Cochin Port Labour Union (CITU) condemned the flotilla massacre and expressed the Port workers solidarity with Palestine. Leaders of at least five port unions and the Water Transport Workers Federation of India expressed the unity of Cochin Port workers with the growing world-wide boycott.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) had already responded straight after the attack on Gaza in Dec 2008 - Jan 2009. In three weeks, Israeli forces killed 1400 Palestinians including over 300 children. In the midst of the carnage, the International Committee of the Red Cross had to wait 4 days before the Israeli military allowed ambulances to reach children huddled next to their dead mothers in a house shelled by Israeli forces. A UN compound was attacked with white phosphorus munitions. Schools, hospitals, ambulances, sewage treatment plants, all came under fire. Long before the UN launched their own investigation of possible war crimes (the "Goldstone Report"), South African workers knew enough to act. Members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union SATAWU, affiliated to COSATU, refused to work the Zim Lines “Johanna Russ” – which sailed from Haifa at the height of the invasion – when it arrived in Durban in early February 2009. On the eve of that action, COSATU wrote:
“SATAWU’s action on Sunday will be part of a proud history of worker resistance against apartheid. In 1963, just four years after the Anti-Apartheid Movement was formed, Danish dock workers refused to offload a ship with South African goods. When the ship docked in Sweden, Swedish workers followed suit. Dock workers in the San Francisco Bay Area and, later, in Liverpool also refused to offload South African goods. South Africans, and the South African working class in particular, will remain forever grateful to those workers who determinedly opposed apartheid and decided that they would support the anti-apartheid struggle with their actions.
“Last week, Western Australian members of the Maritime Union of Australia resolved to support the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and have called for a boycott of all Israeli vessels and all vessels bearing goods arriving from or going to Israel.
“This is the legacy and the tradition that South African dock workers have inherited, and it is a legacy they are determined to honour, by ensuring that South African ports of entry will not be used as transit points for goods bound for or emanating from certain dictatorial and oppressive states such as Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Israel.”
Five COSATU officers were amongst the 1400 internationals who converged on Cairo last December, hoping to enter Gaza for the Gaza Freedom March. Zico Tamela, the International Secretary of SATAWU, was on the delegation. Interviewed outside the UN buildings by the Nile, he called on transportworkers throughout the world
“. . . to assist in the struggle for the liberation of our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We must support and actively participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. This means the total isolation of Israel in terms of arms embargo, economically, culturally, socially, and otherwise. Just like you fellow workers did with apartheid South Africa. This also means that the Israeli labour movement, which is Zionist to the core, must be kicked out of the progressive international trade union movement. It’s not a question of fighting Jewish workers, no, no, it’s a question of isolating Zionism within the labour movement. Just like it was not a question of fighting white workers, but of fighting racism and isolating it within the international progressive trade union movement.
“The action we South Africans took in relation to an Israeli ship and a Chinese ship that docked in Durban, when we refused to offload the consignments those ships carried, the Israeli ship carried civilian goods, the Chinese ship carried arms for Zimbabwe, we didn’t offload those goods. As transport workers throughout the world, we need to be at the forefront of the struggle to implement Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, because we are the ones who transport goods to and from Israel throughout the world.”
Israeli Consulate rebuffed by ILWU Local 10 Executive
Israel is taking this seriously. Their San Francisco based Consul for the Pacific Northwest Akiva Tor sought to meet with the ILWU Local 10 Executive Board on 6 July, hoping to persuade the union to change course. When the PGFTU found out, they wrote to the Executive Board on 2 July, saluting the union’s boycott, their history of international solidarity, and the risks taken by African-Americans in the civil rights movement. They appealed to the union to stand firm:
..Although we do not live in the United States, we find it highly unusual and somewhat uncustomary that a paid foreign representative of a racist and apartheid regime can demand and get a meeting with the executive board of a local union no less than the ILWU. . .
Our civil society has risen and said that justice is universal. We supported the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States, and the struggle for international solidarity. We remember that May 1st commemorates a labor struggle that took place in Chicago, IL, in the US and on May Day 2008, your union the ILWU, shut down all west coast ports to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, setting a precedent in the U. S. Labor movement.
We humbly ask of you to hold steadfast in the face of backlash and revenge against your union. The call for a meeting with your union by a foreign paid emissary is intervening in the domestic affairs of local community grassroots action in the United States. Israel, an apartheid state, maintaining an illegal war against our people, should not be given the platform at your union house. That platform should be reserved for heroes who champion justice and equality for all.
The Consul may have scented danger, and 6 July his Deputy Gideon Lustig turned up to head the delegation. Lustig spent 10 years in the Israeli Defence Force and attained the rank of Major before turning to a diplomatic career.
The Consular delegation was joined by Dr Roberta Seid, an academic at University of California Irvine who believes the IDF was not responsible for the death of ISM volunteer Rachel Corrie, run over by an IDF Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza on 16 March 2003 while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian doctor’s house. Why? Because an official Israeli investigation concluded her death was an accident.
In a major diplomatic rebuff for Consular staff, the Executive Board refused to allow the delegation to enter the meeting, in line with the appeal from the PGFTU. Dr Seid was given permission to speak. To general amazement, she defended the murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla. Perhaps she anticipates the official Israeli investigation will clear the Navy of responsibility. What differences would the Israeli government have with her presentation, she was asked. None, apparently. Had the journal “Foreign Affairs” recently exposed Israel’s offer to supply South Africa with nuclear weapons during the apartheid era? Seid admitted they had, but claimed the story was untrue. A former ILWU official recalled his own experience of visiting Palestine in 1989 and described the expansionist aims of the Israeli state in detail.
When it was over, the Executive reaffirmed the union’s position opposing the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the apartheid wall in the West Bank, the continuing bloody Zionist oppression of Palestinians and the murderous Israeli attack on the aid flotilla.
What does it mean?
In the past, with a few very important exceptions, unions have focused on adopting national policies in solidarity with Palestine, donated funds, sent delegations to the West Bank and occasionally to Gaza, invited their Palestinian counterparts to address conferences, but without engaging in any dispute with their own employers over this issue. Although unions have adopted policies in support of BDS, and even overcome strong internal opposition before doing so, these policies have mainly remained paper committments. Yet these small steps are essential preparation. As Howard Keylor remarked, it took years of education within Local 10 before the boycott of the “Nedlloyd Kimberley” became possible.
The first sign of another strategy came in 2006, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the largely secret war in Gaza that same year. Tram drivers in Dublin were instructed to train their Israeli counterparts on how to operate the planned Light Rail system connecting Jerusalem to the illegal Settlements. In line with the policies of their union SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, they refused, risking their jobs. At the same time, an appeal from sacked Liverpool dockers entitled “Sanctions on Israel: If not now, when?” concluded “If you can, intervene directly to stop trade with Israel while the carnage in Lebanon and Gaza continues”. Possible action against Zim Lines was discussed in San Francisco a few months later.
During the bombardment and invasion of Gaza from Dec 2008 – Jan 2009, Greek dockers threatened to boycott a shipment of US arms to Israel, which was then re-routed, eventually reaching Ashdod in March.
Now, for the first time, Israel faces the prospect that their trade links are no longer secure as unions across the world are willing to go into dispute to implement the boycott. This is not a dockers issue, it is an issue for any union which wants to make BDS a reality. And the dockers are only able to act because they know there is a strong basis of support in the wider labour movement.
This is exactly what happened to South Africa from about 1978 onwards. Workers at the computer manufacturing firm ICL (now Fujitsu) in Manchester refused to dispatch the machine they had built for administration of the hated Pass Laws. Air France pilots were poised to refuse to fly uranium illegally mined by Rio Tinto Zinc in South African-occupied Namibia. The trade was suddenly switched to sea. But a decade later Liverpool dockers blockaded containers to interrupt the export of processed South African and Namibian uranium, touching off an outcry in Japan where electricity contracts with RTZ were cancelled. Dublin shopworkers refused to sell Outspan oranges, and were sacked. Oakland dockers refused to offload South African steel and coal, and survived.
It all coincided with the emergence inside South Africa of militant independent trade unions ready to strike against the employer and the apartheid system, eventually forming the Congress of South African Trade Unions in 1985. That was the moment when the South African ruling class knew it would have to find a way out of apartheid. Even so, it took another 9 years.
These were not the only factors which brought down the apartheid regime. No-one should imagine that a week of blockades spells the end of Israeli apartheid, or even the end of the siege of Gaza. But the dockers have broken through the consensus that trade union solidarity begins and ends with resolutions at trade union congresses, education, fundraising and delegation work, important as these are in laying the basis for action.
The blockades connect Palestine to the class struggle which workers live through every day of their lives. In Oakland, Sweden, Turkey, India, and South Africa, a new generation of dockers has joined a fight with echoes of the 1980s. Clarence Thomas:
“Today what you witnessed was the current young membership of ILWU Local 10 answering the call of the brothers and sisters who came before them. We understand what international solidarity means. It is not an empty slogan. You have to give something up. Our members were willing to give up a day’s pay today. That’s what solidarity means. This is indeed a people’s victory, and remember, just because it’s not on the front page of the New York Times, just because it’s not on CNN, we have to get the word out. We claim no easy victories and tell no lies. Solidarity to the Palestinians. Solidarity to the working class around the world.”
Whatever the immediate consequences, Israel’s murderous attack on the flotilla has landed the Zionist regime in very dangerous waters.
Greg Dropkin is a member of Liverpool Friends of Palestine and active in the trade union movement.
 for English versions see www.labournet.net/docks2/1006/sweden1.html www.labournet.net/docks2/1006/sweden2.html www.labournet.net/docks2/1006/sweden3.html www.labournet.net/docks2/1006/sweden4.html www.labournet.net/docks2/1006/sweden5.html
Photo credit: Bill Hackwell