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Fate of the Neptune Jade

by Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, March 23, 1998 edition

At just about the same moment that twelve sensible men and women in a courtroom in Amarillo, Texas, told the cattlemen that Oprah Winfrey had every right to defame beef, I was heading toward a rally in downtown Oakland against another, far more sinister, onslaught against our rights of free speech and assembly. The rally in question that Thursday morning, February 26, had been organized by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who, along with supporters and political groups in the Bay Area, are being told they have no lawful right to throw up a picket line, no right to refuse to cross a picket line and no right to express solidarity with fellow workers in ports around the world.

When I arrived at the little plaza off Broadway, Jack Heyman was in full throat, firing up the crowd of about 400. Jack is a member of Local 10 of the I.L.W.U. and a defendant in a legal attack by employers mustered in a trade organization called the Pacific Maritime Association, or PMA.

Jack faces the possibility of being fined hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars in damages because he honored a picket line in a protest last fall. He's also threatened with being permanently barred from doing his job. Members of the Laney Community College Labor Studies Club and Program in Oakland face the same financial sanction because they helped set up the picket line and their banner was seen there. The Peace and Freedom Party faces fines for similar reasons, as does the local chapter of the Labor Party. Lawyers for the P.M.A. are also harassing these people and groups to name the names of others who participated in that protest and, furthermore, to disclose all their past political and union associations. These outrageous intrusions come as part of lawsuits, mounted by the P.M.A. in federal and state courts, designed to break the I.L.W.U., a union whose members have fought through some of the most inspiring chapters in the history of American labor under such leaders of imperishable memory as Harry Bridges.

We come now to the story of the Neptune Jade, a container ship that was the focus of that 1997 protest. Chartered by a Singaporean company, the ship came into the port of Oakland in September and tried to discharge its British cargo. The longshore workers said No. They did so because they knew what was happening to their fellow workers 5,300 miles away, in Liverpool, England. By the mid-nineties there was but one port in England operating under a collective bargaining agreement, and that was Liverpool. But in 1995 the Mersey Docks and Harbor Company fired 500 men there when they refused to cross a picket line set up by their workmates, some of whom had been fired for opposing employer attempts to sabotage a labor agreement. The Liverpool workers did an extraordinary job of alerting longshore unions around the world to what was going on, as was attested by what happened to the Neptune Jade after the I.L.W.U. workers refused to cross the line to handle its cargo. The ship plowed north to Vancouver and met the same refusal. It then headed west across the Pacific, only to face adamant dockers first in Yokohama and then in Kobe.

International solidarity is a longshore tradition. In the seventies and eighties the I.L.W.U. participated in protests against General Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile. In 1990, when Nelson Mandela visited the United States, he made a particular point of thanking I.L.W.U. workers for their vigorous support of the A.N.C. across the years. With such actions as refusing to handle South African cargoes, the longshoremen, Mandela said, had been crucial in "reigniting" the antiapartheid campaign in the United States.

The court cases involving the port of Oakland are only the latest in an effort by the P.M.A. to let longshore workers know that almost any action inhibiting the capacity to move cargo as swiftly and cheaply as possible will be met with unending lawsuits, any one of which could, if the verdict went the wrong way, bankrupt the union. The I.L.W.U. is one of the few unions that still believe in job actions at the point of production as a means of concentrating employers' minds on the issue in contention. These workers are also among the best-paid in America as a consequence of such historic militancy. In the past, work stoppages that were not settled then and there would be taken to arbitration. But two years ago the P.M.A. abruptly changed tactics, in favor of responsible for this new, aggressive strategy is Joseph Miniace, a man quick with lissome lingo about "win-win" solutions in reorganizing work in the interests of competition and efficiency. All he wants from the I.L.W.U., Miniace told The Journal of Commerce, is for the union to be "accountable" for its actions. In search of such accountability, the P.M.A. continues to seek damages for a 1995 coastwide strike in support of two leading I.L.W.U. officials in Seattle who, the union says, were unfairly disciplined. The P.M.A. has already won a federal injunction forcing the union to scab when it comes to solidarity picket lines. And, as we've seen in Oakland, the P.M.A. is readying its McCarthy-style probes into anyone who defies it.

A few years back, amid the rubble of Communism and the hosannas of the capitalist choirs, I quoted here from a wonderful letter by Dr. Nguyen Khac Vien, one of the most distinguished figures in the Vietnamese revolutionary movement. Dr. Vien was outlining what he thought the current world political situation demanded: "If a world front of capital is being founded, its counterweight, the democratic popular front on a world scale, is also in formation.... Freedom of the press, of association, of petition, of demonstration, to strike and of election are the forms of struggle of our epoch." Dr. Vien had it right, and as was noted often enough by speakers in Oakland, the ability of workers to withhold their labor, to set up and honor picket lines, and to support one another worldwide.