David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Longshore Workers Chase Scab British Cargo Out to Sea
by David Bacon

OAKLAND (10/2/97) -- After sitting like a beached whale for four days at the Yusen Terminal in the Port of Oakland, the Neptune Jade finally sailed out of San Francisco Bay early Wednesday morning. Every one of the dozens of huge shipping containers destined for unloading in Oakland remained aboard, as the enormous freighter began a trek up the Pacific Coast, searching for a port where longshoremen were willing to work its cargo.

San Francisco dockworkers clearly weren't.

The Neptune Jade was carrying cargo loaded in the British port of Thamesport, where the port authority is a subsidiary of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company. Two years ago, that company fired 500 longshoremen in Liverpool after they walked out on strike against brutal speedup and deteriorating working conditions.

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 and 34 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.

ILWU Business Agent Henry Graham is reported to have told the arbitrator that he was not about to order union members to become scabs.

"Five hundred guys lost their jobs in Liverpool," said longshoreman Pete Bissell, as he watched the picketline and awaited the arbitrator's decision on Tuesday night. "It's worth all the help we can give them."

The action at Yusen Terminal was just the latest in a string of support activities organized by San Francisco dockworkers since the Liverpool strike began two years ago. On January 20 and September 8, the ILWU shut down all Pacific Coast ports for 8 hours as part of worldwide support actions.

Liverpool was once the strongest union port in Britain, a country where all dockworkers were unionized for over a hundred years. Under past Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, however, British ports were turned over to private companies. Longshoremen, who had been public employees, then became employees of individual private employers. In the process, recognition was withdrawn from the unions, and almost all were destroyed. Today, every port in Britain is non-union.

On September 29, 1995 the speedup and tumbling wages which followed privatization drove 500 workers to strike the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company. They were all promptly fired and replaced. Since then, their case has become a cause celebre among longshoremen fighting privatization around the world.

In the last decade, privatization of ports has spread to Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and elsewhere. In most cases, the process has led to mass layoffs, the destruction of unions, and declining wages and working conditions. In some cases, as in the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1989, privatization has been carried out at the point of a gun.

Once their strike started, dockers from Liverpool fanned out to ports around the world to explain their case. Their message met a sympathetic response in San Francisco, where longshoremen have a long tradition of stopping work in support of workers in other countries.

Local 10 and 34 members wouldn't load scrap iron destined for Japan's war against China in the 1930s, and refused to load cargo and war material bound for Pinochet's Chile or the Salvadoran government during that country's civil war. In 1984, they held the Nedlloyd Kimberly captive in the bay for 11 days, refusing to touch cargo from South Africa. Local 10, 70% of whose members are African-American, helped lead the Bay Area anti-apartheid movement.

Regina Cooper, who drives one of the cargo cranes which tower over the docks across from the Bay Bridge toll plaza, declared her belief that "shipowners will try the same thing here they did in Liverpool. That's why it's important that our new, younger members learn these traditions of our union."

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."

Aaron Wright, another longshoreman whose father and grandfather were both radical ILWU members, said his fellow unionists felt the action to support the Liverpool dockers was "inconvenient, but necessary." He believes that younger longshore workers in the Bay Area will eventually confront the privatization threat. "It will happen here," he said. "When employers want to play hardball, it will take the same shape. So if we support the workers in Liverpool, others will support us when our time comes."

Employer representatives from Yusen Terminal, Centennial Stevedoring Company, and the Pacific Maritime Association refused interview requests at dockside while the work stoppage was in progress.

The companies tried various maneuvers to get rid of the picketline, and get the Neptune Jade unloaded. On Monday night, they pulled the vessel out into the Bay, spreading rumors that it had left for Japan. Then suddenly they pulled it back into the dock, hoping to call out a longshore crew before picketers could set up their line again. They were unsuccessful.

The same day, they applied for an injunction in Superior Court to stop the picketing. A temporary restraining order was granted on Tuesday. Frustrated management representatives threw copies of the order at picketers as they paced and chanted at the entrance to the berth. When the Oakland Police were called to enforce the court order, the cops simply stood at the sidelines with their arms folded, unwilling to become involved in a labor dispute. The ship finally sailed away later that night.

Yusen, Centennial and the PMA, however, have moved to hold those picketers they could identify in contempt of court. They include picket captain Robert Irminger, a member of the Inland Boatman's Union, longshoreman Jack Heyman, the Golden Gate chapter of the Labor Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the Labor Studies Program at Oakland's Laney College. The organizations were apparently chosen because they had large, visible banners at the picketline.

They have also sued the picketers for damages. Longshore observers estimate that a shipowner loses tens of thousands of dollars each day a ship is tied up in port without being unloaded.

"I think they're angry because our action was very effective," Irminger says. "We forced the Neptune Jade to leave port, and got our message through clearly. They can see there's going to be trouble everywhere with cargo loaded by the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company and its subsidiaries. We're not going to give up, and things won't end here."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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