On Friday, June 4, 2021, the Volans, a ship operated by ZIM, an Israeli shipping company, did not unload its cargo as planned at the Oakland, California port. Responding to a Palestinian call to action, hundreds of community members, organizations, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 members picketed the dock’s gates, and the Volans left with its cargo still on board.
“Our monumental victory against Israel’s largest cargo shipping company demonstrates that gone are the days that the apartheid state of Israel can expect to do business as usual,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), the group leading the #BlockTheBoat protests. “Just as successful boycotts against the South African government, businesses, and institutions helped mark the end of the apartheid regime, we are seeing communities turn the tide against Israel’s ongoing occupation, apartheid, racism, and violence against the Palestinian people who are fighting for their liberation.”
Boycotts played a key role in turning the tide on apartheid-era South Africa, and AROC’s campaign — an effort that has more than one hundred endorsing organizations — draws on that tradition. The ILWU, whose members unload cargo from ships such as the Volans, took similar action against apartheid South Africa, and the independent union has a consistent pattern of taking militant political action on issues before other unions are willing to publicly take a side. In fact, Friday was the first time ZIM has tried to unload in Oakland since dockworkers refused to handle the ship’s cargo in 2014. (While many US unions are unwilling to side with Palestinians during this latest wave of Israeli aggression, there are exceptions, and United Educators of San Francisco last month became the first educators’ union to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS] movement.)
“An injury to one is an injury to all. Just as ILWU Local 10 workers refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, we honored community pickets asking us not to unload cargo from Israeli ZIM vessels,” said Jimmy Salamy, a Palestinian rank-and-file worker and Local 10 member. Salamy pointed out that Oakland workers aren’t the only ones acting in solidarity with Palestinians, noting that workers in South Africa and Italy have also recently refused to unload Israeli ZIM vessels. As the L’Unione Sindacale di Base, an Italian trade union of port workers, said of the action in Italy, which followed workers in Livorno discovering that an arms shipment passing through their port was headed for Israel, “The port of Livorno will not be an accomplice in the massacre of the Palestinian people.”
Such actions respond to calls from the Palestinian labor movement for solidarity around the world as Palestinians face the latest escalation of evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem and a bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip. The latter killed an estimated 230 Palestinians, including sixty-five children, last month.
“We urge you to take courageous and brave stances against the occupation and stand with us as we demand freedom, justice, and human dignity,” wrote the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in a May appeal to their comrades in US labor unions. As bombs were raining down on Gaza, the Palestinian labor movement called on US workers to “Boycott the Israeli occupation and its institutions, and refuse to deal in any way with them including: not buying any of their products, refusing to unload their ships and goods from sea and airports, and pressure them to stop their racist practices.”
Pickets like the one in Oakland on Friday are a response to this appeal and part of a week of actions across the United States in cities such as Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. While some of these actions have already taken place, others are upcoming, such as a rally scheduled for 4 PM ET tomorrow outside the ZIM America offices in Staten Island.
The workers who keep commerce flowing through key arteries of the global economy can create immediate pressure when they choose to do so, as Local 10’s members did in Oakland. When dockworkers withdraw their labor, the economic costs are high, making the action an effective means of disruption. Or, as the local president, Trent Willis, put it, “Workers’ struggle is worldwide. When the workers of the world figure that out and realize that we have to band together to make change, then it’ll be a better world, including for the Palestinian people. Worker power, and economic power, is real power — it’s more powerful than those bombs Israel is dropping.”
It’s no easy task to organize against a behemoth like ZIM. That requires coordinated action at the international level. But each victory builds momentum, while showing the public the possibilities on display when workers not only side with the oppressed but take action to back up that position. Local 10’s refusal to handle Israeli cargo in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, captivated me as a young activist, suggesting the power of organized labor.
In response to Friday’s blockade in Oakland, Elias Al-Jelda, an executive committee member of the PGFTU in Gaza, stated that “It warms our hearts in the besieged occupied Gaza Strip and the rest of occupied Palestine that our comrades led by AROC, and with the solidarity of our fellow workers in ILWU Local 10, achieved this great victory against ZIM in Oakland.” Al-Jelda added that the campaign must continue. “We call upon all dockworkers worldwide to intensify the boycott campaign against ZIM ships and all business profiting from apartheid Israel, in solidarity with our people’s struggle for freedom and justice in Palestine.”