For the first time in US history, a peaceful protest was able to stop workers from unloading an Israeli cargo ship on Sunday, 20 June, in the San Francisco Bay area. From 5:30am until 7pm, social justice activists and labor union organizers blocked and picketed several entrances at the Port of Oakland, preventing two shifts of longshoremen with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to come to work and unload the Israeli Zim Lines cargo ship.
Approximately 700 protesters and labor organizers launched the action in direct response to the ongoing blockade in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli attacks on humanitarian aid activists aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla last month. Nine persons, including a 19-year-old American citizen, were killed in the attacks, and at least thirty were wounded as activists attempted to sail to the beleaguered Gaza Strip with thousands of tons of humanitarian supplies prevented from normal import by Israel.
The picket at the Port of Oakland comes on the heels of a similar actions around the world in protest of Israeli policies. Dockworkers in Sweden announced on 2 June that no Israeli ships would be unloaded or processed between 15-24 June in protest of the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
A coalition of Palestinian trade unions issued a call for the labor-led action, stating that “Gaza today has become the test of our universal morality and our common humanity.” Bay Area members of the Labor for Palestine group, heeding the call, issued a press release saying that the ILWU Local 10 joins with dockworkers in South Africa, western Australia, Sweden and Norway, who have all launched similar actions.
A press release from Labor for Palestine stated: “this action stands in the proud tradition of West Coast dockworkers who refused to handle cargo for Nazi Germany (1934) and fascist Italy (1935); those in Denmark and Sweden (1963), the San Francisco Bay Area (1984) and Liverpool (1988), who refused shipping for apartheid South Africa; those in Oakland who refused to load bombs for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (1978); and those at all 29 West Coast ports who held a May Day strike against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2008).”
Monadel Herzallah, organizer with Labor for Palestine and the Arab-American Union Members Council, told The Electronic Intifada that the Port of Oakland remains a beacon of global justice activism tradition with the ILWU:
“They have been courageous and have stood in principle to support different issues. Today, the SF Labor Council, the Alameda Central Labor Council, and dozens of other labor councils have responded to the call by Palestinian labor unions to block the ship and make a statement — after the flotilla incident, there’s no way that Israel can conduct business as usual. Having this type of action at this moment in the US, a supporter of the injustice being done by Israel, is quite significant.”
ILWU Local 10 member Clarence Thomas said that the action would raise the stakes and encourage other labor unions to broaden their education around the Palestine issue. “The world is watching,” Thomas told EI. “There hasn’t been any significant labor action responding to Israel’s actions [until now]. Israel’s naked aggression in international waters is very difficult to ignore. With this action today, this is the start [of a broader movement]. This is going to be a very important, a very historic day … This is a teaching moment.”
Thomas told EI that crossing the picket line raises an issue of health and safety for the workers, which was cited as the official reason ILWU shifts were cancelled (with full pay). In 2003, in a similar action against the loading of weapons and military equipment bound for US-occupied Iraq, both protesters and longshore workers were wounded by Oakland police officers who fired wooden dowels, sting balls, tear gas and percussion grenades after the crowd refused to disperse. “We don’t want our workers put in the middle again,” Thomas said.
Labor organizers handed out flyers to truckers, dockworkers and other port workers on their way to work, explaining what happened on 31 May to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and urging workers not to handle Israeli cargo “until the blockade in Gaza is ended.” Workers turned around and went back home, many of them honking their horns in support of the picket.
After the first shift of workers decided not to cross the picket line following arbitration meetings, protest organizers urged activists to stay and block gates for the second shift. By 6:30pm, the second shift decided to honor the picket and refused to come to work. Meanwhile, the Israeli cargo ship arrived at the docks, but no one was there to unload it.
Wael Bheisy, a Palestinian refugee from Kuwait whose parents were expelled from Palestine after 1948, said he was at the protest to send a message of solidarity to his relatives in Gaza. “They live in a big jail … and that this is happening in this day and age is just unbelievable to me. We’re here to take action and make the world listen. No country should continue to have normal relations with the State of Israel, or any government that practices, in everyday policy, such brutal oppression against a people.”
Bheisy said that this action could make a huge impact across the country and the world. “This is historic, this is unprecedented. As we know, in the ’70s and ’80s, the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa was launched. And it’s disappointing that thirty years later, we’re here again. But it’s an action that’s hopefully going to spark similar actions. For the first time, we stopped Israeli goods from unloading in the United States.”