On June 20, ILWU Local 10 dockworkers in Oakland, Calif., refused to unload an Israeli Zim Lines ship for 24 hours. Their protest was supported by more than 800 rallying local activists, the San Francisco Labor Council and the Alameda County Labor Council (the equivalent of local branches of the AFL-CIO).
Workers around the world have been joining the call to blockade Israeli ships from being unloaded, in essence creating their own blockade to protest the blockade of food and humanitarian supplies Israel has placed on Palestinians in the Gaza strip. On June 7, by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), the General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW), the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (IFU), and several other organizations produced a call for dockworkers to refuse to unload Israeli ships.
Their statement, released after the flotilla massacre that killed nine people earlier this year, said:
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.
Recognizing how similar longshoreman boycotts had helped bring down the apartheid, the Congress of South African Trade Unions called for a boycott of unloading all Israeli ships. The Western Australian members of the Australian Maritime Union have also responded to the boycott, refusing to unload Israeli cargo, as have the Turkish dockworkers union Liman-Is.
There have been additional reports of solidarity by individuals unions. The Swedish Dockworkers Union and the unionized Longshoreman in the Port of Cochin, India, have also refused to unload Israeli ships. (See Greg Dropkin’s in-depth piece on this uprising of dock workers).
The Israeli assault on the Gaza flotilla has been condemned by the International Longshoreman Union (ILWU) and the global labor movement, including the rival dockworker global union federations — the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), However, neither the U.S.-based ILWU or either of the two rival international confederations responded to the Palestinian call to refuse to unload Israeli ship. In other words, The responses to the Palestinian call for a boycott came not from big unions or confederations, but from the workers themselves.
The ILWU has a slogan of "An Injury to One is An Injury to All." By threatening to not unload ships, dockworkers have long been able to bring to a half the commerce of nations involved in human rights abuses.
In 1933, after the invasion of China by the Japanese and the Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese systematically raped 80,000 women, dockworkers on the West Coast refused to unload Japanese ships. Likewise when the stories of the holocaust began to become public knowledge in the 1930s, dockworkers would refuse to unload German ships in protest. In the 1980s, dockworkers around the world would refuse to unload South African ships in a sign of solidarity. On May 1, 2008, members of the Longshoremen Union in the United States refused to unload any ship in protest of the Iraq war and the atrocities being committed against Iraqi workers.
Dockworkers blockades stems from this tradition, but also from the involvement in helping facilitate the Gaza flotilla. The Swedish Dockworkers union, in conjunction with a Greek union, helped purchase the flotilla vessel the "Sofia." Longshoremen union members provided key logistical support for several of the flotilla’s activities (In These Times covered this story back in June).
The lesson is that solidarity, even with something as obscure to most worker’s daily lives such as Gaza Flotilla, is not something that union organizers or big international union confederation need to create a sense of in workers. Most of these solidarity activities weren’t coordinated by big international union confederation, but by individual unions and workers themselves. Solidarity is something most workers feel natural.
As corporations become more global, more and more workers across the globe are working together to take multinational corporations or international regimes. (as the example of foreign bank workers helping U.S. workers organize shows). Solidarity is labor’s strongest weapon, important not just on the local picket line, but on the global picket line as labor takes on multinational corporations and repressive regimes.
Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.