Mass action and union support key for protests against Zim shipping

The government’s continued backing for the genocide in Gaza has raised the question of what kind of movement can break its support for apartheid Israel.

At the end of 2023 Palestine solidarity activists and trade unionists launched blockades at ports around the country to protest Israel’s Zim shipping-line.

Palestinians, including Palestinian trade unions, are calling for an economic boycott of Israel. The Zim shipping-line is regularly in Australian ports. The company has offered Israel its vessels, ships and infrastructure for the “national needs of Israel” during its savage war on Gaza. It is also a major transporter of weapons.

The actions against Zim have helped ratchet up the political pressure on the Albanese and state governments, put the need for serious boycotts against Israel on the map and point towards the militancy, class politics and union solidarity we need to strengthen the movement. This is what will be necessary to help make Israel a pariah state globally and create a real political crisis for the Albanese government over its support for Israel.

Mass action

But the campaign against Zim has also raised questions of strategy. Some look to smaller, secret, guerilla actions to target the company and cause economic disruption—for example small groups blocking ships with kayaks or secretly assembling at the ports to block trucks.

We should defend those taking these actions when they are attacked by police, politicians and the media. But we should also be clear this strategy is a dead end.

Often this guerilla “direct action” approach is justified on the basis that it causes more disruption. But disruption alone is nowhere near enough to get Zim out of our ports or end Australia’s support for Israel. Shipping companies know delays are common and factor them into their operations.

What is needed are actions that can create a real political crisis. A key strength of mass direct action is that it can help sway public opinion, build solidarity and win new recruits to movements for change, as well as disrupting business as usual.

In a recent article reporting on the port blockades against Zim, The Australian was anxious to try to divide the Palestine movement between what it described as “two tiers” of protesters—the “largely peaceful” majority who march on the weekend and the “radical protesters adopting criminal tactics” against Zim.

We need to reject this division and win the thousands marching on the weekend to a strategy of port blockades and union action. But guerilla tactics involving small groups reinforce the division, sideline the workers and leave most Palestine supporters as spectators rather than participants.

Strategy for success

The strategic aim of the campaign has to be to win the wharfies and other workers to take industrial action against Israeli companies themselves. That’s why the most successful actions against Zim, so far, have combined mass action with union support.

There have been two major actions at Port Botany in Sydney—a standing rally of 1500 on 11 November and a mass blockade of Hutchison Ports on November 21 when the Zim vessel the Calandra was docked.

The 11 November action helped build wide support and confidence. This acted as a launch pad for 500 people to block the bridge into the port for two hours at short notice on 21 November.

Workers from Hutchison Ports attended both actions and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) site committee there as well as the union’s Sydney Branch supported the action.

As well as being disrupted by the blockade the Calandra spent two weeks beforehand trying to avoiding planned protests between Sydney and Melbourne.

When police cleared the blockade 23 people were arrested and charged under draconian anti-protest laws. This further highlighted the need for mass numbers and wider union and political support in order to sustain the actions.

In Fremantle in WA 200 people blocked the entry to the port in December. Thanks to the support of the MUA workers respected the picket and two shifts were turned away from working the Zim vessel the As Nadia. Activists estimate this cost Zim $250,000, a clear reminder that even in purely economic terms mass action organised openly with union support is more disruptive than small, secret actions.

In Melbourne in December, 300 assembled to block the road into the Port. This became a celebratory rally when the ship they were targeting was diverted. There were banners or flags from unions including the UWU, ASU, CPSU and RTBU and the rally was addressed by a former MUA State Secretary.

It is building on these kinds of actions—with mass participation, with union support inside the ports and beyond—that can boost the confidence of workers to take industrial action and take the campaign against Zim forward. In December, Belgian transport workers banned all arms shipments to Israel. International solidarity can help stop the horror in Gaza.

By Adam Adelpour

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