Oakland Activists ‘Block the Boat’ for Three Days Running

Julia Wong

Activists hoist the Palestinian flag as they move to prevent International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers from unloading an Israeli ship in the Port of Oakland. (Julia Wong)

In response to the recent war between Israel and Gaza, the Pales­tine Gen­er­al Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions has issued a call urg­ing Amer­i­can labor unions to con­demn the Israeli aggres­sion and to boy­cott Israel through var­i­ous means.” In the Bay Area, that con­dem­na­tion has emerged in the form of Block the Boat,” a cam­paign to stop the unload­ing of an Israeli-owned Zim Inte­grat­ed Ship­ping Ser­vices ves­sel in the Port of Oakland.

This week­end, thou­sands of pro­test­ers massed in Oak­land to pre­vent mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) Local 10 from emp­ty­ing the ship, effec­tive­ly unit­ing the com­mu­ni­ty in sup­port of the inter­na­tion­al Boy­cott, Divest from, and Sanc­tion Israel cam­paign, known as BDS. As of Mon­day evening, the boat had still not man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly deposit its cargo. 

On Sat­ur­day after­noon, more than 1,000 pro­test­ers gath­ered at the West Oak­land Bay Area Rapid Tran­sit (BART) sta­tion before march­ing about 1.5 miles to the Port of Oak­land, where they planned to erect a pick­et line. Mid­way through the jour­ney, how­ev­er, orga­niz­ers announced that they had received word the ship would not dock for the rest of the day.

On August 16, 2014,” Sameh Ayesh of the San Fran­cis­co-head­quar­tered Arab Youth Asso­ci­a­tion (AYO) cried over a loud­speak­er, we have stopped the ZIM Line from dock­ing in the Unit­ed States.”

The pro­test­ers con­tin­ued to the Port any­way, where they held a vic­to­ry ral­ly upon arrival. Clarence Thomas, a mem­ber of ILWU Local 10 who was sup­port­ive of the block­ade, addressed the crowd.

I want every­one to know an injury to one is an injury to all,” he said, invok­ing the ILWU’s his­toric slogan.

What you’ve done here will rever­ber­ate around the world,” he con­tin­ued. This action needs to be dupli­cat­ed at oth­er ports around the country.” 

Although there was back­ing from some rank-and-file mem­bers of the ILWU Local 10 for the action, includ­ing Thomas, the union itself did not take an offi­cial posi­tion. Orga­niz­ers pro­ceed­ed with the action in the hopes that union mem­bers would hon­or the com­mu­ni­ty pick­et line and decline to work their shift.

Local 10 is cur­rent­ly in nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract, its last one hav­ing expired July 1. Accord­ing to Roy San Fil­ip­po, a spokesper­son for the ILWU, Local 10’s exec­u­tive board does not accept out­side speak­ers dur­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, pre­vent­ing it from for­mal con­sid­er­a­tion of an endorsement. 

ILWU Local 10 has a long his­to­ry of under­tak­ing inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty actions, such as the union’s refusal to load bomb parts intend­ed for the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of Chile in 1978 and 10-day 1984 strike against South African goods in protest of apartheid.

Because of this, com­mu­ni­ty activists often assume that even with­out explic­it endorse­ment from the ILWU, union mem­bers will not cross the pick­et line.

Usu­al­ly if a pick­et line is big enough, strong enough, and pow­er­ful enough, the ILWU will respect that,” says Peter Olney, the for­mer Orga­niz­ing Direc­tor of the ILWU. Olney is now retired, and does not speak for the union.

Indeed, Local 10 has a con­tract pro­vi­sion that allows for a shift to be can­celled to pro­tect the health and safe­ty of its mem­bers if a pick­et line is in place at the Port. (The union points to a demon­stra­tion in 2005 when ILWU mem­bers were struck by rub­ber bul­lets fired by Oak­land police as an exam­ple of why such lan­guage is needed.) 

The con­tract pro­vi­sion has become well known in activist cir­cles in the Bay Area, mak­ing the Port an attrac­tive tar­get for direct action because of the poten­tial for dra­mat­ic vic­to­ry. In 2011, all ILWU work at the Port of Oak­land was stopped twice by Occu­py Oak­land activists, first in Novem­ber as part of a city­wide gen­er­al strike” called in response to the police raid of the Occu­py Oak­land camp, and again in Decem­ber as part of a planned shut­down of all U.S. ports on the West Coast. Then, in August, Octo­ber, and Novem­ber of 2013, pick­et­ing truck­ers and their sup­port­ers shut down the Port to protest work­ing con­di­tions for the dri­vers. (Port truck dri­vers can­not union­ize because they are inde­pen­dent owner-operators.)

The fre­quen­cy of these actions has led to a feel­ing amongst some ILWU mem­bers and lead­ers that work­ers are being used as an instru­ment,” rather than approached as allies.

Cer­tain groups feel a huge sense of eupho­ria and pow­er from shut­ting down the Port, but it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that pow­er comes from the sac­ri­fice of work­ers will­ing to go with­out pay,” says Olney. If groups abuse that pow­er, cer­tain­ly resent­ment will devel­op. Some groups have abused the good­will and sol­i­dar­i­ty tra­di­tions of the ILWU.”

Olney con­trast­ed Occu­py Oak­land activists unfa­vor­ably with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions involved in the resis­tances to South African apartheid and South Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ships, with whom he said the union had worked close­ly and har­mo­nious­ly” to car­ry out major actions.

This weekend’s Block the Boat” action, too, had the poten­tial to cause anoth­er rift between the union and com­mu­ni­ty activists. The action was ini­tial­ly cre­at­ed by a hand­ful of advo­cates on July 25, who planned to obstruct the ZIM ves­sel arriv­ing on Sat­ur­day, August 2. This short time frame left lit­tle room for out­reach to the ILWU. The Bay-based grass­roots group Arab Resource and Orga­niz­ing Cen­ter (AROC), which had also been con­sid­er­ing a Port action, intervened.

We pro­posed to [the orig­i­nal groups of] local activists to push it back to give us some time to do some out­reach to the ILWU,” says Lara Kiswani, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of AROC. Some ILWU mem­bers joined plan­ning meet­ings for the protest, and young mem­bers of AROC went to the ILWU’s union hall every morn­ing and after­noon to speak with work­ers about the sit­u­a­tion in Israel and Palestine.

Saturday’s demon­stra­tion con­clud­ed with a dec­la­ra­tion of vic­to­ry in delay­ing, at least for one day, the dock­ing and unload­ing of the Israeli ship. On Sun­day, how­ev­er, a rank-and-file long­shore­man informed AROC orga­niz­ers that the ship planned to dock that after­noon, and that union mem­bers had been called in to work to unload the car­go. Phone calls, emails, and mes­sages on Face­book and Twit­ter began cir­cu­lat­ing around 4:00 p.m., call­ing on activists to return to the Port to put up a com­mu­ni­ty pick­et line. 

By 5:30 p.m., about 40 pick­eters were in place to block ILWU mem­bers from going to work. The crowd grew over the next hour, with vol­un­teers shut­tling pick­eters and sup­plies from the BART sta­tion. About 50 police offi­cers were present, but they did not pre­vent the pick­et lines from forming.

Antho­ny, a mem­ber of ILWU Local 10 who had worked with orga­niz­ers of the block­ade action and asked that his last name not be used, was pre­pared to medi­ate with work­ers and try to talk them into hon­or­ing the pick­et line.

I’m angry at any offi­cial gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion gun­ning down peo­ple who can’t defend them­selves with the sup­port of the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” he said of his rea­sons for join­ing in the protest. He antic­i­pat­ed that his fel­low union mem­bers would hon­or the pick­et line, but said, As far as con­scious­ness about Israel, I don’t know that there’s much of that.”

As work­ers arrived for the evening shift, they con­gre­gat­ed on the side of the road about 100 yards from the pick­et line and wait­ed for Melvin MacK­ay, the pres­i­dent of Local 10, to decide their course of action. None of those work­ers agreed to be inter­viewed, with one say­ing, I’m not a politi­cian. I don’t talk politics.”

MacK­ay, who has been a mem­ber for Local 10 for more than 20 years, told In These Times that he did not intend for his mem­bers to cross the pick­et line. I think it’s a health and safe­ty issue for my men to go across the line,” he said. If they’re try­ing to block the line, we’re not going to cross.”

Even­tu­al­ly, MacK­ay led the work­ers away from the site of the protest, to cheers from the pick­eters. A state­ment from the ILWU issued Mon­day morn­ing states, When it was ascer­tained that last night’s demon­stra­tion and asso­ci­at­ed police pres­ence cre­at­ed an unsafe envi­ron­ment, dis­patched ILWU-rep­re­sent­ed Long­shore­men and Clerks that arrived at the SSA gate to work stood by instead at a safe loca­tion away from the demon­stra­tion point. SSA, after rec­og­niz­ing the safe­ty sit­u­a­tion asso­ci­at­ed with ingress to their gates, released all ILWU man­pow­er at 7:30 p.m.” SSA Marine is the oper­a­tor of the ter­mi­nal at the Port of Oakland.

Although the block­ade was only intend­ed to delay and not pre­vent unload­ing of the ship, orga­niz­ers of the action con­sid­ered it a his­toric win. We just got con­fir­ma­tion for the sec­ond day in a row … the ZIM ship did not get unloaded. We won,” Lara Kiswani announced to the pick­eters at 8:10 p.m., after word came that the work­ers were going home. The work­ers hon­ored our pick­et line. Israel apartheid is falling.”

Despite AROC’s inten­tion to end the block­ade on Sun­day, a group of about 20 returned to the Port Mon­day morn­ing. And though the protest was small, ILWU mem­bers again hon­ored the com­mu­ni­ty pick­et line: The shift was cancelled.

That evening, a larg­er group of pro­test­ers amassed around the Port. While about 50 police offi­cers pre­vent­ed them from form­ing a pick­et line across the entrance to the berth, few, if any, ILWU mem­bers entered it. At 9:20 p.m., activists received word that the shift had once again been can­celled, mark­ing the third straight day the ZIM ship had been effec­tive­ly stymied.

As the pick­eters pre­pared to go home, some spoke of return­ing in the morn­ing at 5:30 a.m. to con­tin­ue to pick­et. On Tues­day after­noon, the still-loaded ship left the area, pur­port­ed­ly for Los Ange­les. How­ev­er, after pass­ing through the Gold­en Gate into the Pacif­ic Ocean, it turned around and returned to a dif­fer­ent berth at the Port of Oak­land. Although pro­test­ers returned to mount anoth­er pick­et line, the ship’s car­go was unloaded. Regard­less, orga­niz­ers promise that the actions will not end with this round of barricades.

This ship comes every week,” warned Kiswani on Sun­day. So we’ll be com­ing back.”

Julia Car­rie Wong is a free­lance jour­nal­ist liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @juliacarriew or email her at julia.carrie.wong [at] gmail​.com.
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