Long Read | Palestine: The challenge to union solidarity

Union statements did not lead to effective boycott of an Israeli ship, but Durban, a hub of grassroots organisations, can help forge new concrete solidarities that promise alternative visions for the future.

Organising solidarity with Palestine has exposed the rifts in workers’ unity and the shifting character of trade unions in postapartheid South Africa. 

In the past, unions, particularly the dock unions, acted in solidarity with oppressed people internationally, irrespective of the ANC government’s stance. When President Thabo Mbeki supported Robert Mugabe after he rigged Zimbabwean presidential elections in March 2008 the South African labour movement took action.

Workers were appalled by the ugly physical assault on the opposition leader and supported Zimbabwean trade unions. When the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang docked in Durban in 2008 with AK-47s, ammunition and mortars for Mugabe, they refused to handle the war material. Later in 2009 during the Israeli assault on Gaza, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) stated it would refuse to unload a ship sailing on behalf of Israeli Zim Lines. This seemed good preparation for future action. 

Zim Shanghai arrived at pier 108 in Durban’s container terminal on 20 May. It planned to offload 2 455 containers and load 2 545, just as the onslaught of Israeli attacks against Gaza paused in a ceasefire. But it looked as though the docking and loading would not happen. 

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Thulani Dlamini, Satawu’s maritime national sector coordinator, announced that no Israeli ships would receive any service at South African ports. “Total liberation of Palestinian people or Israeli ships will find it increasingly difficult to dock at our ports,” said Dlamini. 

The Mercury reported on 21 May that workers would “continue to boycott work on the Israeli ship Zim Shanghai” after the ship docked. “Israel must know it will lose access to the South African market if it continues the occupation.”

Demonstrators near the Bat Centre, an arts and culture hub in sight of Zim Shanghai, on 21 May celebrated the news and declared that the union and workers were refusing to offload the cargo. But if they had looked more carefully across the water, they would have seen the post-Panamax crane booms and the containers moving. The offloading of the Zim Shanghai was completed on the evening of 22 May  and the loading started.

Failure in solidarity

What happened? A worker gave this account: “On Thursday May 20th at about 9.50am, while working at the terminal, I received a message from Satawu sent by a comrade. As I read it, [I] saw that the Zim Shanghai vessel was entering berth 108 and it was docked around 10.15am. 

“The statement said that workers had refused to offload the vessel. This was a surprise, and I asked a fellow Cosatu [Congress of South African Trade Unions] comrade, ‘How can you guys say it has not docked when it’s berthed right there?’ He told me that they were told by Satawu that Transnet management had assured them in a virtual meeting that morning that it would not dock. That was it.

“Private-sector stevedores removed the lashing and the twist locks, the crane spreaders were locking on and the containers moving and being loaded onto the truck in the shore platform [by unionised workers]. When a vessel comes it will offload and load. That’s normal.”

The vessel left without impediment on 24 May and the ship Bermuda took its place at pier 108.

Everything was promised, but nothing happened on pier 108. Why was there such a failure in solidarity? Interviews with workers found that the promise at the highest level of the labour movement had not got through to the workers at pier 108. There also had been no political education on the issue and workers said they had not been instructed on what to do.

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Given this, the workers from Satawu and other unions continued to work normally. The reasons for this failure go beyond a lack of clear communication, suggesting structural weaknesses when the flag of solidarity should have been flying.

Solidarity, the base of power in a union, does not live as an ideal separate from practice. The ground needs to be watered, the seeds and plants nurtured, and the weeds of doubt and division pulled out.

The labour movement is not like a coalition of mutual interests or allies sympathetic to those in the heat of struggle. Members of the movement live as fellow combatants to those internationally striving towards the same goals of democracy and socialism. The labour movement is not a loose congress of interests; it is a living campaign in opposition to the structures of wealth and power. If it makes alliance with these structures of inequality, it will surely fail.

Each generation – and there are many generations in struggle – has to either carry the tradition of solidarity forward or relearn the hard facts of exploitation and build solidarity afresh. This happens internationally across industries and countries as labour strives to become an international movement of shared material and political interests.

What sows division

Division, which blocks spontaneous solidarity, has several causes.

A Portnet worker described how union alliances create division: “On international solidarity we all face the same challenge. The alliances we make out of our struggle are the cause of division; some people join a union that is aligned to ANC out of loyalty, even if these unions are no longer militant. How can Cosatu speak when it is friends with comrade ministers?”

The Congress Alliance has reshaped the character of unions. The struggles between dock unions are abrasive because some have privileged access to management while others get no recognition. “Satawu, the main transport union, is too close to management. The Portnet management helps Satawu survive by denying recognition to Numsa [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] and Retusa [Revolutionary Transport Union of South Africa] in negotiations.” Differences are sharp and linked to material issues represented in negotiations.

Big business in unions is another reason for division. A change has come about over the past decade. Part of the reason why no one responded to the boycott announced by Satawu is because most workers at the container terminal now also belong to Retusa and Numsa. Few remain in Satawu. A former Satawu shop steward explained: “Around 2014 the general secretary of Satawu took action against shop stewards who opposed union corruption and collaboration with management. We shop stewards were axed and new shop stewards were then appointed.”

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Many of those who took action on Zimbabwe and Palestine are no longer in Satawu, which is why international solidarity is failing.

Despite division, the issue of solidarity with Palestine draws workers back to unity. Can the union leadership break from collaboration with Transnet management and fight for Palestine with other unions independent of state control?

A third cause for division is privatisation and outsourcing. The Congress Alliance is a platform for privatisation. Transnet presents outsourcing and privatisation as a policy of liberation, which aims to increase “the number of previously disadvantaged individuals who manage, own and control businesses”. This sounds good, but there is no mention of guaranteeing jobs for impoverished working people – quite the opposite. New business arises from the loss of permanent jobs.

Workers argue that since most of Black management are deployees or friends of the ANC, whatever the ANC tells them they do, they do, acting together. A new capitalist elite emerges.

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The tender system is designed for managers and ANC loyalists to form companies to pick up the contracts. The unionised stevedoring Southern African Container Depots and SA Stevedoring are no longer the big operators as new companies, including Ilembe, Maverick, A4 and Thekwini Marine Services, take their place. New stevedoring companies are formed and managed with ANC directors, former Transnet managers and white-collar workers.

Difficult struggles to unionise stevedores have been suppressed. New hands replace experienced workers. As one of the Retusa organisers said: “When you start recruiting stevedores you’ll get a surprise when you find that the employers and owners are ANC.”

The regime on the docks is tough. The workers say: “We keep quiet. If you come with a complaint, they will just fire you. Satawu now looks like a business union, one which fits within the business of the docks.”

In this environment unorganised workers cannot be expected to take solidarity action.

The wheel of history

Workers draw lessons from the past. “The ANC is now like the apartheid National Party. Just look at the facts … During apartheid there were white unions which supported apartheid because it benefitted them. Now all these union leaders are benefitting from the ANC. It works like this: when there’s privatisation, they are the ones getting shares in the privatised companies, and they get rich. That’s just like the white unions, which supported apartheid.”

The postapartheid capitalist order is one of gestures, appearances and deceit, providing unions with apparently good reasons for accepting anti-labour policies.

So what is the way forward? Truth, building and rebuilding at the base. Anyone watching the bayhead entrance will see heavy container trucks roaring up the road to Johannesburg. This looks like robust economic activity. During recent decades, however, Transnet has suffered gross mismanagement, outsourcing of essential activities and corruption. Security controls have weakened or lie broken. Runaway theft of overhead lines, cables and even the rails themselves has devastated infrastructure.

From the 1990s onwards, infrastructure, the wagons and even rails have been regarded as a vast scrapyard to be packaged and shipped to China in containers. Those with connections made good money.  There was a rapid shift from surplus stock to scarcity. As early as the 1990s there was a shortage of rolling stock to move imported maize for southern African drought relief. The private appropriation of public resources through theft of materials goes along with corrupt deals. Both have now reached astonishing levels.

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The decade of outright looting and state capture by the connected elite has left the South African rail system and docks in poor shape. Durban’s rail yard, which is used for storing, sorting and loading and unloading trucks, used to be the largest in the world, far greater than Newark on the east coast of the US. At one time a high security national strategic point, it is now dormant and the entire railway system has to be renovated to integrate all the modes of transport.

If Transnet fails, South Africa fails. Every part of the economy is linked to the rail system. But the many trucks making their way up to Joburg are a sign that Transnet is not working. Its ineffective programme for post-looting reconstruction seems always to lead to a standard response: pile the problem of debt and disorder onto the workers.

Transnet seems bent on wholesale privatisation, retrenchments and reversing wage increases. After the state entity has mismanaged the railroads – and thus the very economy – its directors and managers now put the blame on workers. They leave with many millions in their pockets to take up directorships in privatised companies before retiring, without any guarantee to workers’ jobs for those who remain. 

All this has forced dock workers into a defensive position, aware that after mismanagement an attack is coming. Workers face the threat of retrenchment, loss of earnings and a future. Despite these long shadows, they are open to political issues.

During the pandemic, global trade faltered but did not stop. At the frontline of the interface between the global and national economy stood stevedores, lashers, crane drivers, shoremen, container loaders and forklift operators, who worked and survived as best they could. The containers had to move and move they did, en route to City Deep in Johannesburg.

Preparing effective solidarity

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” It is as though Amilcar Cabral is speaking to us today, to the South African trade unions swearing solidarity with Palestinians, to those in solidarity movements wanting to show progress.

Palestinian workers are fighting as we fought with the power of our labour. The general strike of 18 May united the Palestinian people, who have been forced to live apart in Israel, in Gaza and in the West Bank. This use of the workers’ weapon was stunningly effective. The Israel Builders Association said that just 150 out of 65 000 Palestinian construction workers arrived for work on that day.

International solidarity has to be built or rebuilt on a base of internal solidarity in the workplace, community and across movements. As we build solidarity with Palestine, we overcome our limitations within the unions and beyond and find new strength.

The arrival of Zim Shanghai has brought Durban labour and grassroots organisations together as never before. Through the peaks and troughs of the drive for solidarity, there were active exchanges between unions, workers, the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement. We celebrate struggle days and our mutual solidarity.

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Without the truth the struggle falters and fails, as Cabral insists. A movement has to learn from life, learn from our people, from books but mostly from experience. 

A new “truth” is put out: that there was in fact a boycott from Satawu, but that “Ilembe” contractors did the job. Ilembe Outsourcing is the stevedoring creation of Transnet, which Satawu has not organised. Ilembe does stevedoring operations; that is, the lashers and gangwaymen it employs just unlock the containers and give signals to the Transnet crane drivers. It does not operate the massive cranes, load the trucks, handle the straddle carriers to unload a vessel; these are unionised Transnet operations.

In the latest central executive statement Cosatu now prioritises the International Criminal Courts and the UN to take action, not for our workers to act. Solidarity doesn’t come easy. Engagement in Palestinian solidarity found lines of fracture but also a readiness to engage and re-engage with international issues. Nobody wanted solidarity to be seen to fail. But it is necessary to utter no lies and claim no easy victories; to grapple with the cost to workers of solidarity action rather than to pretend it took place.

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How to move ahead? First we must tell the truth to ourselves, fix problems rather than pretend they don’t exist. Second, dock workers have some practical and wider proposals; solidarity action needs rigorous workers’ education, improved communications and trust.

A Labour Desk among the unions in the harbour is proposed to achieve union coordination. There has to be extensive workers’ education on Palestine. Not least to be achieved: protection against victimisation of activists.

Durban has enormous potential for social movements coming together, as in the 1973 mass strikes and again in resistance to Inkatha in the 1980s and 1990s. Abahlali baseMjondolo, with its awards and international recognition, arises out of assassinations with new hope for impoverished working people. 

New alliances among shack dwellers, unions and the millions of unemployed are possible nationally. As the ruling party flounders in interpersonal factions based on the flow of money, these new solidarities offer an alternative vision for the future. Solidarity is growing with Palestinian people as they rise from the giant prison of Gaza. We are preparing for the next Zim Shanghai. Through struggle we grow.

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