Trade Unions Block Arms Exports to Israel

Around the world, trade unions and workers are refusing to participate in the production and transportation of arms intended for Israel. Particularly notable are the actions of port workers’ unions, who have demonstrated in line with their tradition that the struggle for workers’ rights is inseparable from the fight for human rights, equality, and freedom. On the other hand, almost all unions in Croatia have remained silent on the call for solidarity from their Palestinian colleagues and international union centers.

Since October 7th, more than 25,000 people have lost their lives due to the warfare in Gaza and the West Bank, and 1,200 in Israel. Over thirty Palestinian unions have urgently called on their international partners to take measures to stop the war. Their letter references previous successful actions by unions in Italy, South Africa, and the United States, where workers refused to handle Israeli goods and weapons. Unionists worldwide have been called to refuse the production and transport of arms intended for Israel and to obstruct the operations of companies involved in supporting the illegal blockade of Gaza.

Ports in Boycott

Globally, unions have responded. Workers in the port of Naples refused to handle shipments of arms destined for Israel. Port workers in Barcelona stated they would not load or handle goods from ships carrying weapons to Israel and Ukraine.

In early November, a joint statement was released by port and transport workers associated with Unione Sindicale di Base (USB) in Italy, the Nakliyat Is Union in Turkey, and several maritime unions in Greece. They urged their governments to halt the transfer of weapons from domestic ports and to withdraw support from the Israeli government. In their statement, they said, “We cannot tolerate the loading and unloading operations of ships, planes, etc., carrying weapons into the conflict or providing logistical services to it, to help feed a system that slaughters thousands of innocent people, especially women and children, every day.”

They emphasized that the history of transport workers has always been on the side of peace, against fascism, racism, occupation, and the oppression of peoples. “For this reason, we cannot tolerate the transformation of the ports, airports, ships, and trains of Europe into centers of trafficking of death,” they conclude.

On November 10th, hundreds of unionists organized protests in Genoa in solidarity with Palestine. Port workers there announced their refusal to load ships from the Israeli company ZIM Integrated Shipping Services, carrying arms deliveries to Israel. On the same day, hundreds of unionists in the United Kingdom, under the slogan ‘Workers for a Free Palestine,’ blocked the entrance to the BAE Systems factory in Rochester, which allegedly supplies components for military aircrafts used in bombing Gaza. Transport workers’ unions in Belgium also expressed their resistance, issuing a joint statement refusing to handle the loading or unloading of arms “intended for the genocidal war against Palestinians.”

Indian unions have also stood up for workers’ rights and Palestine, rejecting an “export agreement” to replace Palestinian workers in Israel. Central Indian trade unions, representing around 100 million workers, have vehemently opposed the proposed talks between New Delhi and Israel, which could lead to the “export” of about one hundred thousand Indian workers to replace Palestinian workers. While India’s Ministry of External Affairs claims to be unaware of such a “specific request,” it has confirmed that India and Israel are engaged in discussions about a bilateral framework for mobility and migration, particularly in the construction and care sectors.

It’s also worth noting that this month, unions in Britain held a discussion titled “Why Unions Should Stand with Palestine,” during which Alex Gordon, President of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers Union (RMT), emphasized the importance of pressuring politicians. Gordon said that unions need to be visible and loud, as it is “the first lesson that unions need to learn.”

History of Resistance and Croatia’s Lack of Resistance

This lesson is the one that port workers have provided much material for over the years. The history of maritime solidarity was the focus of a research conference held this fall in Amsterdam, where papers were presented analyzing solidarity among colonial sailors working for British companies from the 1920s to the 1940s, as well as more recent examples of networking worker and migrant resistance in the Mediterranean.

“There are many examples of maritime solidarity, from networks organized to help slaves escape across North America to the emergence of often very radical port unions that brought together workers of different backgrounds. Ports play a significant role in the history of anti-colonial struggle, and we are interested in what motivated this internationalism and what is its scope,” said Pepijn Brandon, one of the researchers of maritime solidarity and professor of global economic and social history at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Mateo Ivičević has also written extensively over the years at Workers’ Rights on the militancy of port and transport workers. As we read and write about all this, we can’t help but notice that Croatian unions are regularly absent from the story. Except for the Resolution of the Independent Union of Science and Higher Education, no other union in Croatia since October 7th has issued an official statement or organized action opposing the war in Israel and Palestine, raising their voice against the occupation, apartheid, and genocide. Croatia was one of only 14 countries worldwide that voted against the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas at the UN. So, there was no shortage of reasons for a reaction, if indeed one always waits for a reason and only reacts to what we are most explicitly involved in as a country.

Considering that the maritime union sector worldwide is among the more active regarding Palestine, we called Neven Melvan, the Secretary-General of the Croatian Seafarers’ Union (SPH), wishing to know why the SPH has done nothing about it in Croatia.

“We are not a political organization. We support the positions emitted by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). They deal with world politics and are quite active in that regard. For decades, they have been dealing with the problems of Palestinians and their rights, which have been endangered not since yesterday but since the 1940s. We do not feel the need to come out with separate statements and actions, but we clearly support the positions of our umbrella organization,” Melvan told us.

In a recent statement, the ITF states:

“As transport unions we have a proud history of standing on the side of oppressed people. Our Constitution and policies are built on principles of peace, justice, equal opportunity, anti-imperialism, democracy, and sovereignty. We have a moral responsibility to objectively identify injustices and to work with all parties in the process of building a true and lasting peace. We ask all ITF affiliated unions to join us in speaking out for peace and taking action in the face of injustice as we have done historically.”

The ITF also reiterates that the only sustainable path to lasting peace is the end of the illegal occupation of Palestine, and that “the historical context and root causes of the current crisis remain the fundamental issue that must be addressed.”

It is politically disappointing that after such positioning and calls from the umbrella organization, the SPH feels the need only to refer to the ITF statement when nudged – a statement that has not even been translated or conveyed on the SPH website. It seems there is no transnational worker solidarity here, even at a time when it seems necessary for it to sprout its first buds. But that’s the way it is when unions claim they are not political organizations.

And what does the unyielding worker solidarity look like, what are its effects, and for how long is it remembered? Let a story from the 1980s about the workers from Dunnes Stores in Dublin remind us. These workers ended up in a three-year strike for refusing to handle goods from apartheid South Africa. The strike began after saleswoman Mary Manning was suspended for refusing to sell grapefruit from South Africa, adhering to union instructions not to handle South African products. Her colleagues then went on strike due to her suspension.

For three years, the workers protested; their salaries were cut, and they earned only 21 pounds a week. Some lost their jobs and homes. The strike lasted until April 1987, when the Irish government banned the import of South African goods. The ban was implemented due to public pressure in support of the strikers and was the first complete import ban from South Africa by a Western government.

“What touched us the most was the fact that members of the labour movement so far from us felt such dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa,” Nelson Mandela said when he met the workers in 1990. He told them how their strike gave him strength while he was in prison. And not just Mandela, but many others too. And not just then but even today. •

This article first published in English on the LeftEast website.

Ivana Perić writes for Radnička Prava (Workers’ Rights) website, Zagreb, Croatia.