Significance of Dockworkers’ Refusal to Offload Israeli Cargo

Report by Azad Essa

Published here: 15/02/09

11 February, 2009

When COSATU and its affiliate SATAWU made it clear that their dockworkers would not be offloading the Johanna Russ, in palpable solidarity with the Palestinian people last week, a largely irrelevant port in the Southern tip of Africa called Durban was making history across the globe once more. Of course, the Israeli goods were offloaded a few days before the scheduled docking, by virtue of scab labour thwarting the blockage and mass protests planned on Sunday. But the message was out: a new wave of civic angst towards injustice had begun. And it was the labour movement at the head of it all.

This is a significant important gesture from COSATU – not only because it is the first of its kind with regards to the Palestinian people and as a symbolic gesture to the Palestinian cause – the stand against Israel by workers is but another case of the infinite possibilities presented by a unified and decisive labour movement towards tackling social injustice beyond the workplace.

Already in 2008, SATAWU, with the support of Anglican Church leaders and other community activists, prevented the An Yue Jiang – the now infamous Chinese ship filled with arms and ammunition – from reaching Zimbabwe. Through SATAWU”s linkages with the International Transport Federation (ITF) and unions organizing in Mozambique and Angola, the ship was turned away by workers across the continent, finally sailing back to China.

The actions of COSATU and its affiliate SATAWU suggest a dramatic shift back to the social movement unionism that defined the union movement at the height of the liberation struggle. It was a time when workplace bread and butter issues were not separated from the socio-political inequity and challenges that existed outside the workplace. COSATU, being drafted into the tripartite alliance with the SACP and the ANC at the dawn of a new democracy, became thoroughly formalized entities; often criticized as lacking the fluidity required of a movement.

But SATAWU General Secretary Randall Howard disagrees, “There will always be particular struggles that seems to have brought upon resurgence in Cosatu”s community ambitions, which seemed otherwise dormant. I don”t think Cosatu has ever shifted away from the community issues. We always knew that our role was always going to be more than merely workplace based issues”

And while this might be true in principal and in policy, Cosatu”s ambivalent role in the tripartite alliance has always been fodder for the purists, convinced that Cosatu”s potential will remain compromised whilst in the alliance.

While COSATU has focused on their institutionalization within the alliance, forcing them to stomach neo-liberal discourse including GEAR and its residual products of privatization and casualisation, which invariably resonated harsh realities onto their membership, their level of internationalization as a movement has never been any better.

“Cosatu”s philosophy of internationalism is exceptional, far advanced amongst the world”s working classes. We”ve seen great actions against oppression in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Burma and now Palestine,” says Director of the Centre for Civil Society Patrick Bond.

But SATAWU dock worker aren”t alone. During the Gaza blockade, Greek dockworkers raised the alarm on ships carrying arms to Israel, even threatening to block them. Following SATAWU”s decision to boycott Israeli cargo, similar activities are being replicated across the world. Already, the Maritime Union in Western Australia have pledged their support to the Palestinian cause and refuse to off-load Israeli ships or cargo.

Meanwhile, a spate of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts are underway in a number of European countries as well as in Brazil, Malaysia and Spain. While governments in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Qatar and Mauritania have severed severing diplomatic ties with Israel after the Gaza invasion.

International worker solidarity in countries still fulfilling business-as-usual diplomatic ties with Israel are essentially then seeking to rewrite foreign policy from a bottom up perspective; the impact of which is not to be scoffed at. In the early sixties, dock workers in Denmark refused to off-load South African goods, and this was soon followed by dockworkers in England and Sweden. It was ultimately these boycotts that led to the harsher sanctions on South Africa in the years to come.

“If our Durban transport workers can prevent Israeli ships from offloading, that will be one of the greatest steps forward in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and will really punish Israeli war crimes”, added Bond

But it is a long and difficult road; especially in a multi-union environment and the reality that there are just enough people who simply can”t afford to turn down casual work.

And this is precisely what happened: Workers from the United transport and allied union (Utatu) agreed to off-load the ship. “We tried to persuade them (Utatu) to support the solidarity action, but this didn”t work. When we found out they had agreed to off-load the cargo, we chose to stick to our principles which was essentially mobilizing our membership in showing solidarity with the Palestine people. We didn”t want to become sidelined with other unions and we also didn”t want confrontation between workers on this issue”, explained Howard.

However, this is not the only obstacle towards fulfilling their mandate and objectives. Howard added that ships often came in with other country”s flags and that intelligence will play a crucial part in this campaign.

But SATAWU will not waver, and the boycott is set to continue, if not intensify.

Azad is also a free lance journalist, having completed work with the Mail & Guardian, Al-Qalm and Pambazuka online. Azad is passionate about popularizing socio-economic issues, towards advancing awareness, freedom of expression and democratic values. He is the editor of Commentary and is a columnist on Thoughtleader. He may be contacted at studio505 [at]

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