Occupy the Port: Demonstrators Confront Ship Carrying Walmart Goods
Hundreds of workers, activists and community members rallied yesterday at the Port of Newark, New Jersey to protest the arrival of a cargo ship carrying Walmart products manufactured in Bangladesh. The demonstrators were seeking to hold Walmart accountable for a factory fire in which 112 workers burned to death last month.
As they attempted to ‘Occupy the Port,’ protesters from Occupy Wall Street and workers’ center New Labor gathered at the entrance to Newark’s docks, chanting ‘Block the Boat! Shut It Down! Turn Walmart’s Smile Upside Down!’ Ultimately, Homeland Security and port police prevented the ralliers from entering the docks, and the cargo ship, the Maersk Carolina, arrived from Oman and unloaded its freight as scheduled. The action concluded without arrests.
On November 24, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Bangladesh left 112 workers dead. Workers on the upper floors of the eight-story building found themselves trapped as managers prevented hundreds from leaving sewing machines even after the fire alarm sounded. Labor activists touring the burned-out building afterwards found shorts emblazoned with Walmart’s “Faded Glory” logo in the wreckage. In the ensuing weeks, it was confirmed that the factory, which had failed fire safety inspections earlier in the year, was indeed subcontracted to produce goods for suppliers of major American corporations like Sears and Walmart. Wal-Mart has maintained that one of its suppliers had subcontracted work at Tazreen Fashions “in direct violation of our policies.” But reports from Bloomberg and the New York Times revealed that Walmart, in an effort to keep costs low, had played a key role in blocking improvements to fire safety standards at factories like Tazreen.
By targeting the Port of Newark, protesters also sought to sway already tense negotiations between port operators and workers of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who have threatened to walk off the job on December 29th if employers do not agree to a new contract guaranteeing increased compensation, job protections, and shift guarantees for loading and unloading crews. Though protesters hoped to inspire workers to refuse to report for work, Homeland Security and port police blockaded the entrance to the port.
In a statement written for the event, leaders from the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) expressed solidarity with the port occupation. “We hope that this action will help paint a new picture and a new future, one where the deaths of mothers, husbands, brothers and sisters will not be quickly forgotten. This action proves that carelessness and death in the workplace have repercussions—especially to those companies that expect their goods to be moved as usual despite the deaths of their own workers.”
Though it could not be verified that the Maersk Carolina was carrying goods produced at the Tazreen factory, organizers of ‘Occupy The Port’ sought to draw attention to the interconnected nature of the global supply chain. The port occupation builds on a mounting wave of struggle against Walmart throughout its distribution network, from successful strikes at warehouses in California and Illinois this fall to the massive walk-outs of hundreds of retail workers at stores nationwide on Black Friday. These worker-led actions called attention to the unsafe conditions, unfair practices, illegal retaliation, and unsustainable employment that plagues workers throughout Walmart’s supply chain.
“I’m glad people came out to hold Walmart accountable,” Walmart warehouse worker Mike Compton, who went on strike with 30 other workers at a major Walmart distribution center in Illinois in September, told In These Times. “Whether it’s a factory fire in Bangladesh, or a low-wage temp job with no security or respect in America, this is what happens when major corporations like Walmart choose maximum profit over minimum levels of safety and dignity for their workers. Those products from Bangladesh that are coming off that ship today, and that will hit the shelves of America’s stores tomorrow, were made at a terrible price, and Walmart has the blood of Bangladeshi workers on its hands.”