Recent International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) press releases and public statements are misleading and conflict with well-established ILWU policies and positions on Palestine and Israel. The editor of the ILWU newspaper, The Dispatcher, at the direction of the ILWU President, cannot overturn those policies and positions without a vote by Convention delegates.
The Israeli Consulate’s statement that the ZIM Pireaus sailed from the port of Oakland on August 20 after completing cargo operations is untrue. But for the ILWU Communications Director, Craig Merrilees, to make that same statement, reaffirming the Zionist’s self-serving distortion places the ILWU on the side of those responsible for the recent slaughter of over 2,100 Palestinians, most of them innocent Gazan civilians. The false statement implies that the five days of picketing by thousands of protesters had no impact on cargo operations. The original call for a mass protest on August 16 and 17 mobilizing a few thousand, was made by a coalition, Block the Boat, initiated by the Arab Research and Organizing Committee. However, subsequent picketing on August 18, 19 and 20, that stopped the ship’s cargo operations was done spontaneously by a smaller group of Bay Area activists, including the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee.
The truth is that after failing to get its cargo worked at the SSA (Stevedoring Services of America) terminal, ZIM Lines tried to fool protesters that the ship was sailing to Russia, but longshoremen knew otherwise. The ship departed August 19, headed out the Golden Gate at night then abruptly reversed course, made a Williamson turn and headed back to the Port of Oakland, this time to Berth 22. Ports America, the employer, tried to shift longshore workers from another ship to work the ZIM Pireaus but there already was a picket line at the terminal gate. Some ILWU Local 10 members refused to work the ship. Those that reluctantly worked it, despite pressure from the employer and union officials, rebelled by slowing down cargo ops to a crawl. One crane operator boasted that barely one percent of containers was actually moved before the ZIM ship was forced to sail.
On September 27, another ZIM ship, the Shanghai, was picketed on the day and night shifts at SSA by 200 protesters mobilized by the Stop ZIM Action Committee and the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee. Three of the organizers were Local 10 retirees, veterans of ILWU’s 1984 anti-apartheid action in San Francisco. Again, Merrilees put out untrue statements, claiming longshore workers were threatened by picketers and were standing by on safety. Actually, an appeal was made in the union hiring hall that morning asking longshoremen not to work the ZIM ship and informing them of a picket line. In a show of solidarity all longshoremen refused Zim jobs except for one. In the evening SSA agreed to remove police from the picketing area if the union would dispatch the jobs. With no police presence it was the picketers and longshore supporters vs. ZIM and SSA. We won hands down!
On September 27, the ILWU International issued a press release falsely stating, “…the leadership and membership of the ILWU have taken no position on the Israel/Gaza conflict.” The truth is that ILWU passed a Convention resolution in 1988 characterizing Israeli oppression of Palestinians as “state-sponsored terrorism.” ILWU’s 1991 resolution condemns Zionist “suppression of basic freedoms of speech and assembly” of Palestinians and calls for the “right of self-determination.”
Israel has blockaded the port of Gaza since 1967, stopping all ships and putting port workers and longshoremen out of work for nearly 50 years. In 2002, Local 10 officers signed a statement “For International Labor Solidarity to Stop Zionist Repression and Build a Just Peace” to protest the Zionist bombing of the headquarters of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in the West Bank city of Nablus.
The Journal of Commerce (August 20), the maritime bosses’ newspaper, quoted Communications Director Merrilees: “ILWU members felt threatened by the large number of demonstrators” and made a similar statement regarding the September dock protest. But the truth is the threat to longshoremen comes from the police not protesters. As Local 10 president Melvin Mackay told the San Francisco Chronicle, longshoremen would not work the ship “under armed police escort—not with our experience with the police…”
In a 2003 court case against the Oakland Police Department for shooting so-called “non-lethal” weapons at longshore workers and anti-war protesters, ILWU attorney Rob Remar meticulously documented coordinated police violence against longshore workers since the 1934 Maritime Strike in which two strikers were killed by cops, provoking the San Francisco General Strike. Nowadays ILWU International officers try to deny our militant history and undermine any semblance of class struggle on the docks, especially in the midst of the current contract negotiations. With no contract in place longshoremen can take job actions during negotiations to bolster the union at the bargaining table but the “top down” bureaucracy has reigned in the ranks, preventing the union from flexing its muscle.
Nevertheless, Local 10 has tried to continue ILWU’s proud history of solidarity actions by introducing a resolution at the 2009 Convention “commending the South African dockworkers union for taking a strike action against an Israeli ship in Durban to protest the massacre of 1400 Palestinians by the Israeli army in Gaza.” A year after the Convention resolution passed unanimously, the Local 10 Executive Board voted to “call on the ILWU International officers to lend their voice in protest with other unions against this atrocity by issuing a policy statement in line with the ILWU’s past position on the question of Israeli repression of Palestinians and call for unions to protest by any action they choose to take.” That motion paved the way for Local 10 longshoremen in 2010 in collaboration with anti-Zionist demonstrators to conduct the first-ever job action by an American trade union protesting repressive Israeli government policies. Meanwhile, ILWU International officers have only reaffirmed Israel’s press statements and run a biased pro-Israel article in The Dispatcher (January 2007) by International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams with no mention of the plight of Palestinians. It’s time for ILWU International officers to get on board: Oppose apartheid in Israel just as we did in South Africa. The rank and file have shown the way.