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On the Waterfront - Dockworkers Refuse Scab British Cargo

By David Bacon, San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 8, 1997.

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 morning Wednesday, Oct 1. 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 longshore workers Were willing to work its cargo. Oakland 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, after the port was privatized, that company fired 500 dockworkers in Liverpool after they went on strike against what they called brutal speed-ups and deteriorating working conditions.

Starting early Sunday morning, the Centennial Stevedoring Company called out crews of longshore workers to work the ship. As each crew arrived at the terminal; it was met by a picket line organized by the Bay Areabased Committee for Victory for the Liverpool Dockers.

The longshore crews, members of Locals 10, 34, and 91 of the San Francisco--based International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), refused to cross the line. As specified in the contract between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, an arbitrator was called to the terminal to determine whether the workers had to go in to work.

On six of the shifts the arbitrator ruled that the picket line constituted a hazard for the dockworkers and sent the workers home. Twice he ruled that the workers had to go to work. But even on those occasions, the men and women of the waterfront refused.

"Five hundred guys lost their jobs in Liverpool," said dockworker Pete Bissell as he watched the picket line 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-Bay Area dockworkers since the Liverpool strike began two years ago. On Jan. 20 and September 8 the, ILWU shut down all Pacific Coast ports for eight hours as part of worldwide support effort.

Liverpool was once the strongest union port in Britain, a Country where all dockworkers were unionized for more than 100 years. Under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher however, British ports were turned over to private companies. In the process, unions lost recognition and almost all were destroyed.

On September 29, 1995, the speed-ups and tumbling wages that 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 célèbre among longshore workers fighting privatization around the world.

In the last decade, privatization of ports has spread to Mexico, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. In most cases, the process has led to mass layoffs, the destruction of unions, and declining wages and working conditions.

Dockworkers from Liverpool have fanned out to ports around the world to explain their case. Their message met a sympathetic response in the Bay Area, where longshore workers have a long tradition of stopping work in support of workers in other countries. San Francisco ILWU members wouldn't load scrap iron destined for Japan's war against China in the 1930s and refused to load material bound for Pinochet's Chile or for the Salvadoran government during that country's civil war. In 1984 dockworkers immobilized the Nedlloyd Kimberly in the bay for 11 days, refusing to touch cargo from South Africa.

Regina Cooper, who drives one of the cargo cranes that tower over the docks acrossfrom the Bay Bridge toll plaza, said, "Ship owners will try the same thing here they did in Liverpool That's why our new, younger members must learn these traditions of our union."

Employer representatives from Yusen Terminal, Centennial Stevedoring Company, and the Pacific Maritime Association refused Bay Guardian interview requests.

The companies tried various maneuvers to get rid of the picket line and get the Neptune Jade unloaded. On Monday, September 29, 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 tile berth. The Oakland police were called to enforce the court order but simply stood at the sidelines with their arms folded. The ship sailed away early the next morning.

The companies, however, have moved to hold the picketers in contempt of court. They have also sued the picketers for damages. A ship owner 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," said picket captain Robert Irminger.

P.S. The Neptune Jade arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 4 and was again met by a picket line of supporters of the Liverpool dockers. Members of ILWU Local 500 refused to cross the line. No cargo was unloaded, and the ship immediately set sail fo Yokohama, Japan.