BDS: reply to Jack Heyman (Labournet)


BDS: reply to Jack Heyman

Report by Greg Dropkin
Published: 17/11/14

Jack Heyman has written a full account on Counterpunch of the actions against Zim on Oakland docks in August and September, along with his critique of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

From Liverpool, I can’t quarrel with Jack’s account of what actually happened with theZim Piraeus in mid August or the Zim Shanghai in late Sept. From what I know of the second action, Jack is certainly right there. He is also right to say “It’s not easy to build solid links with waterfront unions but Palestinian activists are trying.”

Jack has done great work on Oakland docks to deliver real solidarity with Palestine. But there are several other aspects of his polemic with which I disagree.

First, on what role community pickets have actually played in some of the other Oakland actions. The first para under the heading “Workers’ Action: The Most Powerful Solidarity” gives the impression that the action in June 2010 in response to the slaughter on the Mavi Marmara had nothing to do with a community picket line. Yet as Jack acknowledges only much later on, it was a mass community picket involving the wider trade union movement in the Bay Area, which Oakland longshore workers chose to honor. I wrote about that in Blockade: Dockers respond to Israel’s Flotilla Massacre and Gaza Siege, and here’s a paragraph from that report:

When longshore workers turned up for the day shift a mass demo was in place at four gates chanting “Free, Free Palestine, Don’t You Cross Our Picket Line”. . .“An Injury to One is An Injury to All, Bring Down the Apartheid Wall”. . .“Open the Siege, Close the Gate, Israel is a Terrorist State”. . . As union members spoke to drivers, pickets sat down in front of cars. The San Francisco Labor Council and the Alameda County Labor Council had passed their own resolutions and mobilised hundreds of trade unionists to back the demo called by the Labor Community Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It was an unprecedented show of strength from the local and regional AFL-CIO, affiliated unions and their members side by side with Palestinian and Arab-American activists. The Gaza ships were originally organised by Paul Larudee from San Francisco, and Bay Area residents had sailed with him. Now everyone came together for a united action organised in just two weeks.

That sounds like a mass community and union Palestine solidarity picket. And in fact, a number of other historic actions in Oakland have used similar tactics. For example, here is a report by David Bacon on the action in solidarity with Liverpool, a boycott of the Neptune Jade in Sept 1997. Consider these excerpts:

Starting early Sunday morning, twice each day the Centennial Stevedoring Company called out a crew of longshoremen to work the ship. As each crew arrived at the terminal, it was met by a picketline organized by the Committee for Victory for the Liverpool Dockers. The crews of longshoremen and ships clerks, members of Locals 10, 34 and 91 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, refused to cross the line. As specified in the contract between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, an arbitrator was called down to the terminal to determine whether the workers had to go in to work. On six occasions, the arbitrator ruled that the picketline constituted a health and safety hazard for the dockworkers, and sent them home. Twice he ruled the workers had to go to work. But even on these occasions, the men and women of the waterfront refused.…Some of those new members, who call themselves the Youngbloods, were impatient at the tactic of refusing to cross the picketline because of a supposed health and safety danger. “We should be picketing ourselves,” said Eric Wright, whose father and uncle were longtime dockworkers. “We should just refuse to handle the cargo.”

Longshoreman Jack Heyman responded that while directly refusing might be best, “there’s something to be said for involvement by other unions and community supporters. It makes us stronger.”

And here is Jack’s report on the anti-war action in April 2003. It begins:

Last April 7, just as the morning sun was rising over the hills east of San Francisco Bay, Darth Vader-clad riot police in the port of Oakland opened fire on some 700 people demonstrating peacefully against the war in Iraq. Police fired lead-shot bean bags, wooden dowels, rubber bullets, tear gas and stinger grenades. Dozens were injured. Twenty four demonstrators and one longshore official were arrested.A Bay Area group called Direct Action to Stop the War that organized the “community picket line”, had specified that it was “not a civil disobedience action” and the goal was “not to get arrested”. But the bloody police response turned the demonstration into what The New York Times called “the most violent (clash) between protesters and authorities anywhere in the country since the start of the war” (NYT 4/8/03).

In Sept 2014, turning back the Zim Shanghai was indeed a victory for workers action, pure and simple. But more than once, the community picket line has been an essential ingredient.


The second disagreement begins when Jack moves from Oakland docks to generalities about the BDS movement. I haven’t heard the Palestinian Boycott National Committee demanding an ongoing continuous boycott of all Israeli shipping, which I think is very far from achievable in the current situation. It would have been helpful to know who exactly is making this demand, and what level of real contact with dockworkers they have. But Jack then writes “And what of Palestinians who work for Israeli companies in Israel and in Palestinian territories. Should they quit their jobs or demand the companies close?” Now it gets serious. By Jack’s argument, we should have sided with Scarlet Johansson on behalf of the Sodastream workers in the settlement industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, instead of mobilising the boycott which has resulted in the company quitting the West Bank.

Let’s take a step back. The aim of the BDS movement is to impose a real economic price on Israel’s wide ranging violation of international law and Palestinian human rights. One part of that system of violation is the Occupation. The settlements are illegal. The human rights of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, as a whole, are adversely affected by the presence of the settlements and the brutal military regime which sustains them. The fact that some Palestinians work in the settlements as construction workers or date pickers or for companies in the industrial zones does not rehabilitate the settlements or the firms which profit from them or the wider regime of Occupation. They remain legitimate targets.

Surely, if Scarlet Johansson’s argument, which Jack inadvertently echoes, had any real force then Palestinian unions would have broken from BDS. But far from doing so, they have intensified their appeals to the outside world. Here is what the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions-Gaza, General Union of Palestinian Workers, Union of Professional Associations, and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions wrote on 30 July. Their appeal includes:

We ask you to consider the following actions: Stop handling goods imported from or exported to Israel, Divest your trade union pension – and other – funds from Israel Bonds as well as from corporations and banks that complicit in Israel’s occupation and human rights violations, Dissociate from Israeli trade unions which are complicit in the occupation, Support our call for a military embargo on Israel, Share information with your members about the siege and destruction of Gaza and ask your members to boycott Israeli products and to share their knowledge with family, co-workers, and friends.

Whatever argument Jack is having with Palestine solidarity activists in San Francisco, this is what Palestinian workers organisations are saying, and it does include divestment, consumer boycott, an arms embargo, and breaking links with Israeli trade unions complicit in the occupation.

Jack refers to the Durban dockers boycott of the Israeli ship Johanna Russ which sailed from Haifa in January 2009 at the height of Israeli massacre in Gaza, Cast Lead. Interviewed in Cairo during the Gaza Freedom March in 2010, Zico Tamela, the International Secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, the COSATU affiliate which carried out this action, spoke very warmly of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. For example

“I would like to urge all fellow transport workers throughout the world, to assist in the struggle for the liberation of our brothers and sisters in Palestine. One of the things we must do is to support and actively participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. This means the total isolation of Israel in terms of arms embargo, economically, culturally, socially, and otherwise. Just like you fellow workers did with apartheid South Africa. This also means that the Israeli labour movement, which is Zionist to the core, must be kicked out of the progressive international trade union movement.”

Jack says “A serious working class program to end Zionist depredation of the Palestinian people would require Palestinian and Israeli workers linking up in a struggle against their common enemies, the Israeli and Arab capitalists”. But where is the evidence that Israeli workers are even contemplating such an alliance? The fact that dockers in Haifa have struck against port privatization does not imply anything about their attitudes on Palestine. The Histadrut supported Cast Lead and the attack on the Mavi Marmara. The Israeli “social justice” protests over housing and cost of living in 2011 refused to mention the Occupation, let alone equality for Palestinian and Arab citizens of Israel or the Right of Return.

In South Africa, the formation of the independent trade unions which culminated in the birth of COSATU in 1985 was the single most important step towards ending apartheid. The arguments for socialism, now resurfacing in the South African unions, were intense. And what was the attitude of the COSATU unions, including NUMSA, to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against apartheid South Africa? They appealed for it, time and again.

After the General Secretary of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia Ben Ulenga called on Liverpool dockers to target Namibian uranium, Liverpool blockaded containers of uranium hexafluoride derived from Namibian and South African supplies. Japanese electricity companies declared they would not renew contracts, and Rössing Uranium (owned by RTZ) told workers that Ulenga was going to cost them their jobs. Should Liverpool have held back on the grounds that the boycott was threatening miners employment?

And what is the attitude of NUMSA now to BDS against Israeli apartheid? On 16 July 2014 NUMSA issued a press statement on the Gaza massacre, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from South Africa but going much further and endorsing BDS. I ask everyone to read it.

Jack, please think again.

Greg Dropkin

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