Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
Labor: Defend the Palestinians!
Protests Block Israeli Ship at Oakland Port
Protesting the Zionist massacre of over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, demonstrators stopped the Israeli ship Zim Piraeus from being worked for four days at the port of Oakland. In their majority, longshore workers in Bay Area Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) honored the protest pickets. Even when the ship was finally worked, it was only partially unloaded, and it left the port without picking up the cargo it had been scheduled to take on.
The protests began on Saturday, August 16, when some 3,500 demonstrators, responding to a call put out by the “Block the Boat” coalition, converged on the port. The ship, which was scheduled to be worked that morning at the Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) terminal, did not even try to pull into the dock that day. Over the following three days, longshoremen refused to cross the picket lines to work the ship. On Tuesday, SSA could not get enough longshoremen to work any ship during the day shift, tying up not only the Zim Piraeus but also three other ships at the terminal. The idling of the Zim ship, costing its Israeli capitalist owners a hefty sum, was a genuine and important statement of solidarity with the besieged Palestinian masses.
Spartacist League members and supporters participated in the Oakland demonstration and pickets with placards demanding: “Defend the Palestinians! For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!” and “Down With U.S. Aid to Israel! All U.S./UN Troops Out of the Near East Now!” In contrast to the organizers of the Zim protests, who subscribe to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that calls on the imperialists and corporations to punish Israel through trade and other sanctions, our starting point is the need for international working-class solidarity with the Palestinians. This includes time-limited labor boycotts, like refusing to handle Israeli cargo, to protest such atrocities as the recent one-sided massacre in Gaza.
An SL sign at the protest also raised the demand “Labor: Hot Cargo Military Goods to Israel!” Such a standing boycott of military shipments would strike a real blow against the Zionist butchers and, even more crucially, their U.S. imperialist patrons. Our aim is the mobilization of the social power of labor in defense of the exploited and oppressed masses of the world as part of advancing the class struggle of the workers against their own capitalist rulers.
The Workers Must Take the Lead!
We salute the Local 10 members who respected the picket lines and refused to work at SSA. On August 23, longshore workers at the L.A./Long Beach port honored protest pickets against the Zim Haifa, and that ship was not worked during the day shift. The same day in Tacoma, however, ILWU members were escorted into the port by an “alternate route” in order to get around protests at the gates and work the Zim Chicago. The same Zim ship was also worked when it docked in Seattle on August 25, with longshore workers crossing picket lines.
It was the solidarity of Bay Area longshoremen that made the protest against the Zim Piraeus so successful. But this was not a labor action carried out by the union to protest Israeli atrocities in Gaza. On the contrary, the ILWU International’s Coast Longshore Division issued statements that “the ILWU has taken no position on the issue associated with the demonstration,” arguing that what prevented longshoremen from working was simply concern for their “safety,” particularly pointing to the large police mobilization at the port.
There is no question that the Oakland cops are a clear and present danger to the health and safety of longshoremen. In 2003, cops fired wooden bullets and other “non-lethal” projectiles at ILWU workers and demonstrators protesting U.S. imperialism’s invasion of Iraq. But by reducing the question of honoring the Zim protest pickets only to one of “safety,” the ILWU International bureaucrats turned their back on defense of the Palestinians against Zionist terror.
In the end, it was only after an elaborate ruse that the Zim Piraeus was worked at all. On August 19, the ship sailed out of the Golden Gate, purportedly headed to Los Angeles, only to make a U-turn and head back to Oakland, where it was docked and partially unloaded at a different terminal, the Ports of America. The at least tacit connivance of the union leadership is evident from an August 19 press release by the ILWU International that breathed a sigh of relief that “longshore workers were able to safely enter the gate of an Oakland terminal on Tuesday night and work the ZIM vessel PIRAEUS.” A number of Bay Area longshoremen were angry that some ILWU members ended up working the ship, correctly seeing this as undermining the unity and strength of the union in the face of its ongoing contract battle with the shipping bosses of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
The blocking of the Zim ship to protest Israel’s barbarity in Gaza was a just cause. It should not only have been supported by the ILWU but led by it and other unions. The very nature of longshore and other work at the port, which is dependent on world trade, underlines that labor’s fight is international. That means actively championing the cause of their class brothers and sisters across the globe. Defense of the Palestinians against the Israeli rulers and their U.S. sponsors is in the direct interests of the American working class. The ongoing wholesale assault on labor, blacks and all of the oppressed “at home” is the domestic face of the brutal depredations financed and carried out by the U.S. capitalist rulers abroad.
At the Oakland Zim protests, demonstrators drew comparisons between the brutality meted out to the Palestinians in Gaza and the reign of cop terror against black people protesting the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. ILWU members are also quite aware that their union has found itself in the crosshairs of U.S. government repression. Going on three months of working without a contract, many union members recall the 2002 contract battle. Invoking U.S. imperialism’s “war on terror” abroad, the Bush administration’s head of Homeland Security warned the ILWU International president that a strike would “threaten national security,” and the government threatened to militarize the docks.
That the one-sided class war against the workers and oppressed has continued for decades virtually unabated is due in no small measure to the betrayals of the union misleaders. Rather than mobilizing their members to fight even in their own interest, much less in defense of the exploited and oppressed of the world, the trade-union tops shackle the workers to the profitability and strategic interests of U.S. imperialism.
BDS Is Not the Answer
A leaflet by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and its youth group, Arab Youth Organizing—the central groups in the “Block the Boat” coalition—thanked ILWU Local 10 for its support, declaring: “As workers, you hold the power to create effective change.” But the reality is that the protest organizers, who also included reformists like Workers World Party and the International Socialist Organization, don’t look to the power of labor. On the contrary, “community pickets” reduce the workers to little more than passive observers. During the Zim actions, ILWU members literally stood on the sidelines as protesters picketed. While some longshore workers expressed hostility, mainly over lost wages, others enthusiastically supported the protesters, including directing organizers to make sure that all terminal gates were covered.
Whatever the protesters’ intentions, the very basis of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that animated the Zim protests is to appeal to the corporations and governments that exploit and oppress the workers. In our discussions with protesters, many vehemently denied any illusions in U.S. imperialism, pointing to their opposition to U.S. policy in the Near East. However, the fundamental premise of BDS remains: through “militant” pressure the imperialists can be made to alter their policy and act on behalf of the Palestinians. Behind the often trenchant exposures by BDS spokesmen of American hypocrisy in the Near East is the not-too-subtle call to align U.S. policy with its “democratic” rhetoric.
To seek to pressure the capitalist rulers to make more “socially responsible” or “ethical” investments is to build dangerous illusions that the imperialists are somehow less bloody than the Zionist rulers. Notably, at the August 16 protest our sign “Down With Obama’s Airstrikes Against Iraq!” was virtually the only one, among a sea of banners and placards, that explicitly opposed the U.S. bombing raids.
In our discussions and debates with both the protesters and the workers, we underlined that only a series of socialist revolutions in the Near East could answer the aspirations of the oppressed Palestinians and other peoples of the region. We fight to bring the class axis to the fore. The Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab populations are interpenetrated peoples, laying rival and antagonistic claims to the same territory. Under capitalism, the exercise of the national rights of one necessarily comes at the expense of the right of self-determination of the other. Only in a socialist federation of the Near East can conflicting claims over land and resources be equitably resolved and all discrimination based on language, religion and nationality done away with.
Several protesters noted, quite rightly, that if not for their “community picket line” the Zim ship would have been worked. Nonetheless, in making workers not much more than spectators, community pickets do little to advance the consciousness, solidarity or fighting power of the one class in this society with the power to bring down the main enemy of the peoples of the world, U.S. imperialism. Unleashing that power will take a new leadership of the unions, one rooted in a program of proletarian internationalist struggle. Those who truly want to end exploitation and oppression must take up the fight to forge revolutionary workers parties around the globe that can lead the struggle for the socialist liberation of humanity.