Block the Boat

One of the most trenchant points that Deb Cowen makes in her superb book, The Deadly Life of Logistics, is that labour mobilisation is a form of “obstruction” that is securitised by shipping companies and states and crushed, precisely because it becomes a kind of chokepoint for the circulation of goods.  And if the goods cannot circulate, capital is not capital.

Now, we hear about “Block the Boat”,  another kind of corporeal obstruction which specifically targets shipping as a means of disrupting the smooth flow of specific instances of national capital.  This occurred with South African apartheid, and is now happening again with Israeli shipping.  The Block the Boat movement is a coalition of BDS and labour activists who are obstructing the unloading of Israeli ships  belonging to Zim Shipping Company in West Coast US ports.

As the Jacobin account of the movement explains,

The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) has called on workers worldwide, and Bay Area workers in particular, to refuse to facilitate the commerce of Zim and other Israeli companies as part of BDS. This call was supported by COSATU, the Coalition of South African Trade Unions.

US unions have for the most part been slow to respond, due in part to the deep and longstanding influence of the Histadrut and its US counterpart, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). […] The organization is primarily concerned … with enforcing a pro-Israel line in elite labor and Democratic Party circles, including through its cozy relationship with the AFL-CIO. In 2009, the JLC co-founded the group Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP), whose specific purpose is to prevent trade union support for BDS and undermine it where it already exists.

Given this political climate, it’s remarkable that this summer’s Block the Boat action in Oakland was able to succeed — and only due to mass community participation and solidarity from the rank and file of the Bay Area dockworkers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. While the JLC and other Zionist organizations wield great influence over the AFL-CIO, the ILWU actually broke with the AFL-CIO as recently as August 2013. The union’s slogan is “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and their history bears out their commitment to international solidarity.

It was a strike by Local 10 that kept a South African ship from offloading its cargo for eleven days in 1984. In 1978, Local 10 refused to load weapons parts that were supposed to be sent to Chile’s brutal military dictatorship. During the Occupy protests, the union refused to work as part of the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland and other activists. Local 10 member Clarence Thomas traces the union’s history of honoring direct actions back eighty years: “[w]e’ve respected community picket lines since 1935, when Local 10 workers refused to load metal that was bound for the war machines of fascist Italy and Japan.”

As First Look tells us, Zim is a particularly apt target of blockade because of the ways in which its concerns converge with those of the state of Israel:

Zim has drawn particular ire for its role in shipping Israeli armaments. In the words of Block the Boat organizer Lara Kiswani in an interview about the movement earlier this year: “…Zim also transports weaponry: Israeli-made weaponry and Israeli-made military vehicles into the United States”, adding that, “some of the more consumer-based products are not Israeli, but the weaponry and the military products are Israeli.”