Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Anti-War Action? We can't do that there here !

MAY DAY is coming, International Workers Day, and there will be marches and rallies in many parts of the world, including here in London.

In San Francisco, the longshoremen (dockers) are doing something more. They will stop work for the day specifically to oppose the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are calling on other workers to join them.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) said in a resolution:

'That it is time to take labor’s protest to a more powerful level of struggle by calling on unions and working people in the U. S. and internationally to mobilize for a 'No Peace No Work Holiday' May 1, 2008 for 8 hours to demand an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U. S. troops from the Middle East; and
That a clarion call from the ILWU be sent with an urgent appeal for unity of action to the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Coalition and all of the international labor organizations to which we are affiliated to bring an end to this bloody war once and for all.'

In New York City, the NY Metro Area Postal Workers Union voted for a two minute 'period of silence' in support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) . The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 214 in San Francisco also voted to support the ILWU stoppage with a two minute period of silence. The San Francisco Labor Council issued a resolution of support for the ILWU action and stated that it 'encourages other unions to follow ILWU's call for a 'No Peace-No Work Holiday' or other labor actions on May Day, to express their opposition to the US wars and occupations in the Middle East”.

I have not heard anything on the news here about all this.
Nor about all the cities through America where councils have passed resolutions against the war. I have seen and heard about the would-be presidential candidates and primaries, though not much about their policies, though last night I heard Hilary promising she would be prepared to "obliterate Iran". But little about the opposition to war, and nothing about the West Coast longshore workers.

The BBC TV news the other evening did show another example of port workers taking action on a political issue. A Chinese ship carrying weapons bound for Zimbabwe was held up off the South African coast because the dockers at Durban said they would not unload it. We got an aerial shot of the ship.

Here is a fuller report from the online magazine Solidarity, published by socialist trades unionists from Swindon:

SA union refuses to handle arms for Zimbabwe

April 18, 2008 by solidaritymagazine

Durban - Opposition to a shipment of arms being offloaded in Durban and transported to Zimbabwe increased on Thursday when South Africa’s biggest transport workers’ union announced that its members would not unload the ship.
SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) general secretary Randall Howard said: “Satawu does not agree with the position of the South African government not to intervene with this shipment of weapons.
“Our members employed at Durban container terminal will not unload this cargo neither will any of our members in the truck-driving sector move this cargo by road.”
He said the ship, the An Yue Jiang, should not dock in Durban and should return to China.
“South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between the Zanu-PF and the MDC.”
“The view of our members is that nobody should ask us to unload these weapons,” he said.
Satawu said it planned to ask for support from the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu)'.

The great thing in both cases, regardless of your "line" on Iraq, or Zimbabwe, is that working people are asserting themselves, and discovering their strength, by taking action, and saying they have the right to decide, and upon international political issues. This is not new. It has a long tradition. In 1920, for example, London dockers refused to load a ship called the 'Jolly George' which was going to carry arms to the Polish government to wage war on the Soviet Union. Before this too, railway workers in Lancashire decided they would not transport munitions that would help British forces prolong the war in Ireland.

It is perhaps appropriate that South African workers are setting an example now with their action. In the 1980s, rather than leave it to governments to act against South African Apartheid, many workers responded to boycott calls. The shopworkers employed by Dunnes' stores in Ireland withstood a lockout after they refused to handle South African goods. Liverpool dockers refused to unload a cargo of Namibian uranium.

One expression we heard then - though I think it was coined in the 1930s - was "workers sanctions". Yet only a few weeks ago, talking to some otherwise politically sophisticated young activists I had to explain what "workers sanctions" meant. Admittedly one of my listeners had been brought up and educated under a bureaucratic regime in eastern Europe (the German Democratic(!) Republic), where workers acting on their own initiative was probably not considered something to be encouraged. I told her about the dockers and uranium, but did not get around to the counter-example of Jaruzelski's regime making sure Thatcher's government received shipments of Polish coal during the miners' strikes.

However the British young people with her had not heard about these things. And even among some trade union activists I meet, though they may sing the Red Flag and the Internationale occasionally, and talk about solidarity, and liberation struggles in other lands, it seems to be not the done thing to mention the possibility of industrial action, and rude to even refer to the reasons we don't mention it.

There are two reasons why it is more difficult for workers in Britain today to consider taking industrial action such as they did in the past, or as the workers in Durban and San Francisco are taking. One is the use of outsourcing and casualisation to break up workforces. Two, the use of anti-union legislation introduced by the Tories, kept by Labour and adhered to by trade union leaders, which outlaws picketing a workplace that is not your own, or taking action in support of other workers, while allowing employers to sack and replace workers who go on strike. The Liverpool dockers were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line mounted by their sons employed with different conditions by another firm. Heathrow airport workers were victimised for stopping in support of Gate Gourmet catering workers - many of them members of their own families - whose work used to be done 'in house', and who were being replaced by agency staff. My union, the TGWU Unite, decided it could not risk massive fines by calling or even supporting an all-out stoppage.

The longer we put up with the loss of our rights, the more , like not exercising muscles, we lose the use of them. A new generation, increasingly having to compete for insecure jobs, or in places where unions have been in retreat, may need to be educated all over again in how to organise, and what words like "solidarity" really mean.

There is a third reason, though, why an action like that of the San Francisco longshore workers may be difficult to contemplate here in Britain right now. While we have often wondered at the seeming inability of the American workers to
build their own party, so they are stuck with Democrats and Republicans, tweedledum or tweedledummer, our own movement has produced a Labour Party which many people now find hard to distinguish from the Tories. It was a Labour government which took us into war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and though many union leaders were opposed they are nowadays stuck with defending the government and arguing against withdrawal.

I've noted before that international issues seem to be shoved to the back lately, and this year's London May Day leaflet, though it talks about "international solidarity", "human rights", and "fighting global exploitation", says not a word about the wars that are raging, those denied refuge or held without trial, or about workers fighting the big companies and privatisation. Mind you, I think if the Labour Party and some of our leaders had had their way, there would not have been any May Day demonstration this year, lest it supposedly distract us from the London elections.

I don't want to be unfair. Let us watch and listen on May Day, and see whether the example set by the striking dockers of San Francisco receives a mention - whether from the corporate media or the speakers on the platform.


Assemble 12 noon Clerkenwell Green.(nearest tube Farringdon)

March to Trafalgar Square Rally with speakrs including
Tony Benn, Jane Loftus(Communication Workers Union), Janice Godrich( Public and Commercial Servants) speakers from Remploy Campaign and Migrant Workers Organisations.



At 11:51 PM, Blogger white rabbit said...

I've blogged quite a bit about the saga of the Chinese ship of death. Don't the South African dockers make you proud? Trade Unions - bloody good things!


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