The Port of Oakland, California is one of the busiest shipping ports in the United States. On 16 August, it will also be a flashpoint of the growing global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
A diverse coalition of groups is coming together to shut down the port and prevent the offloading of an Israeli vessel scheduled to dock Saturday morning. They are targeting Israel’s largest cargo shipping company, Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd.
They join several other West Coast port cities including Seattle, Vancouver and Long Beach in organizing port shutdowns. If all actions are successful, the US and Canadian West Coast will be effectively locked out to Israeli commercial shipping.
On 30 July, the Palestinian trade union movement called on Palestine solidarity activists to work with US labor rights activists to oppose Israel’s onslaught in Gaza.
As of 11 August, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports that 2,008 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since Israel’s attacks began on 7 July. The Bethlehem-based International Middle East Media Center has published the list of names of those killed.
More than 8,100 Palestinians have been injured, and 386,000 internally displaced. The damage to buildings, homes, schools and infrastructure is, thus far, estimated at $6 billion, not accounting for the decimation of people’s jobs and livelihoods in Gaza.
The direct action at the port is a direct response to the Palestinian trade union movement’s call and Israel’s current assault on Gaza. But Bay Area organizers emphasize that this is just one part of a coordinated escalation of efforts to mobilize for Palestine.
“We really want to take the conversation beyond the massacre in Gaza, and to the whole Zionist project in Israel and what it is being imposed on Palestinians because we know this is cyclical,” Reem Assil, an organizer with the Bay Area’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center, told The Electronic Intifada.
“It’s not just about the military offensive in Gaza. That sparked an international outrage, but we know this is nothing new. The ceasefire is still up in the air, and we want to make sure to use this point in our history to make sure this never happens again. Part of doing that is to isolate Israel,” she said.
Since the Palestinian trade unions released their letter, organizers have been working closely with the members of the local chapter of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, ILWU-10, to build and create a sustainable coalition.
“This is the kick-off of what we hope to be many. We hope this is the beginning of a continued coordinated strategy of working with local rank and file and educating union members,” Assil said.
A shutdown of the port scheduled several weeks back was postponed in order to build more solid ground support, seen as a critical part of an action of this magnitude.
“Symbolically, the port shutdown is a way to build solidarity with civil society and trade unions all over the world,” Assil said.
According to Assil, ILWU-10 members have been coming to meetings, flyering the port and helping to mobilize their rank and file members. “We hope the workers will be on the picket line with us on the day of [the action],” she added.
On 6 August, the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee declared its full support for the picket, writing:
“The Transport Workers Solidarity Committee calls on transport workers the world over to refuse to work Israeli cargo on ships, rails, planes or trucks on August 16. If we can stop the Israeli capitalists’ profits, even for a day, we send a message to the racist Zionist regime that we will not oil their bloody war machine.”
Furthermore, the workers’ vision doesn’t stop with Oakland: “It needs to be a whole West Coast strategy; it can’t be just one port but needs to be coordinated on the West Coast,” they stated.
Over the next week, Long Beach, Seattle and Vancouver all have upcoming actions planned at their respective ports. Activists with Labor for Palestine, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, New York City Against War and Al-Awda: Palestine Right to Return Coalition are planning to demonstrate in New York at the Israeli consulate in solidarity with the Oakland port shutdown.
Assil told The Electronic Intifada that Zim offloads at the Oakland port every Saturday, carrying goods that are made on confiscated Palestinian land — both in settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and within present-day Israel.
Activists will meet at 5am at the West Oakland BART (the Bay Area’s subway) station, from where organizers are providing shuttles to the port’s entry.
The strategy for Saturday involves picketing and peacefully blocking several entrances to the Port of Oakland. If an arbitrator — an arbiter from the Port Authority, which is not affiliated with the workers’ unions — determines that the presence of a significantly-sized picket line raises concerns of safety for the union workers, ILWU must cancel workers’ shifts with full pay.
Organizers are hoping to attract around 5,000 protesters to the port on Saturday. The number of participants is key — without the robust presence of a large number of people, it is difficult to be seen as sufficiently disruptive to call off work.
ILWU-10 are currently in negotiations for a new contract, but that has not affected union members from working with the Arab Resource and Organizing Committee and other organizing groups.
This is not the first time activists have attempted to shut down the Oakland port to an Israeli vessel. In summer of 2010, in response to Israel’s lethal attack on the Mavi Marmara — the Turkish-led humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza, in which ten activists were killed by Israeli navy commandos — Bay Area activists successfully prevented the Zim line from unloading.
It was the first time in US history that activists had stopped an Israeli cargo ship from unloading. The action was seen as a significant victory for US labor and Palestinian solidarity activists and their Palestinian counterparts, who issued a warm response of appreciation that was read to the crowd of participants. Activists had been marching for nearly twelve hours to make sure the ship was not allowed to complete its business at the port.
In addition to respecting the picket line in 2010, members of ILWU had issued a resolution denouncing the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, supporting union protests of Israel’s repression of Palestinians and demanding an end to the Israeli siege on Gaza and US military aid to Israel.
In a testament to the success of that action, representatives of the Israeli consulate and the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs requested to meet with ILWU to urge the workers to withdraw their solidarity with Palestine. However, heeding the calls of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, ILWU rejected the group’s request.
The ILWU has a long history of leveraging their union power to support global human rights struggles. In 1984, for example, they refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa.
International calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions have grown louder and more urgent amidst Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip and its refusal to grant basic demands put forth by Palestinian civil society: to give Gaza access to their own borders and to the outside world through land and sea.
Under Israel’s ongoing siege, Gaza’s fishermen are prevented from sailing more than three nautical miles off the coast, and, even then, risk being arrested or subjected to lethal fire by Israeli naval forces.
It is fitting, activists say, for Israel’s largest cargo shipping company to meet a firmly-locked door at US ports.