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Worldwide Labor Solidarity: The Bosses Worst Nightmare

Industrial Worker, October 1998

The Pacific Maritime Association is continuing its efforts to compel IWW member Robert Irminger to name each of the dozens of workers and supporters who picketed Yusen Terminal in the Port of Oakland, California, last Fall in solidarity with the locked-out Liverpool dockers. The bosses' association is also demanding the identity of everyone with whom FW Irminger communicated regarding the picket and detailed descriptions of those communications, and a list of all organizations with which he is associated.

"A lot of the information I don't have," Irminger notes. "Word got out through the radio and just through an informal network, and people just came down on their own initiative and joined in the picket line. So obviously I didn't know a lot of the people, but of course if I did know their identities I would not divulge them."

Irminger, who is also San Francisco Region chair of the ILWU-affiliated Inland Boatmens Union, served as picket captain during the three and a half days of picketing. After word got out that the Neptune Jade was due in port, several activists showed up early on a Sunday morning, meeting longshoremen with a picket line when they arrived to work the ship around 7:30 a.m.

"Ordinary workers see the sense of solidarity," Irminger told the IWW General Assembly, and so they refused to cross the line.

When an arbitrator rejected FW Irminger's contention that he was a representative of the Liverpool dockers, the longshoremen refused to cross the line on health and safety grounds. The arbitrator agreed, a ruling that was repeated several times over the next three days. But the arbitrator ruled that there was no longer a health and safety issue when police showed up in force to break the picket line.

The longshoremen still refused, "saying they do not cross picket lines with an armed escort, and especially with an armed police escort, citing the murder by police of six strikers in the 1934 maritime strike on the West Coast."

The Neptune Jade then fled for Canada, where longshoremen again refused to cross a picket line, and for Japan, with no more success, before being sold in Taiwan.

While Superior Court Judge Henry Needham has cleared most defendants of the PMA charges, he has allowed the suit to proceed against Irminger on the grounds that he bore particular responsibility for the action as picket captain. Irminger's only role as picket captain was to act as liaison with the arbitrator and police, and that he had no authority over the other pickets. He has already been subjected to hours of questioning by PMA attorneys who, Irminger says, seem incapable of realizing that informal structures exist and that he and others acted on their own initiative.

"The corporate world does not have a clue about solidarity," he said. "They think there has to be someone at the top giving orders."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, perhaps running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Pacific Maritime Association has been turning to the courts with increasing frequency in the past two years. Part of the shippers' strategy is to engage the ILWU in as many lawsuits as possible, forcing the union to divert funds and energy to the courts.

Dockers closed San Francisco area ports for half a day July 22 and rallied at the courthouse during an attempt by the PMA to subponea documents about the picket from the ILWU. Judge Needham ruled in the union's favor three weeks later. The bosses had threatened to sue FW Irminger and other pickets during the action, but he didn't believe them.

"They don't sue you for picketing, for god's sake," Irminger said. "But they do sue you, particularly when you're effective." Dockworkers wield enormous industrial power, he noted, and "the shipping bosses' worst nightmare is the port workers working together, coordinating their efforts."

The defense campaign has drawn wide support, "highlighting the fact that you bring out the best in people when you have a militant struggle," Irminger said.

Irminger placed the lawsuit in the broader context of a global assault against dockworkers' unions over the past 15 years. Shipping bosses are privatizing ports and smashing unions around the world. Dockers are facing massive automation, speed-up and sub-contracting of support functions in an effort to break their industrial power.

The Liverpool dispute which prompted the picketing of the Neptune Jade ended with the loss of the last organized port in England. West Coast Mexican ports were privatized a few years ago, and the military occupied them when workers struck. A similar scenario developed last year in Santos, Brazil, the largest port in South America. This year's Australian strike was another battle in this war. And dockers have come to recognize that they can rely only upon their fellow workers for support in this global class war. And workers are learning their lesson.

When workers picketed the Los Angeles docks last summer to block unloading of scab cargo they had no picket captain to be sued. And ultimately the scab-loaded cargo had to be returned to Australia.