Saga of the Neptune Jade

Hayden Perry

ON SEPTEMBER 28, 1997, a container-ship sailed through the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay and tied up at the Yusen Terminal in the port of Oakland.  This precipitated an international drama that ranges from Liverpool, England, Vancouver, Canada, and on across the Pacific to Japan.

The battle involves British, American, Canadian and Japanese longshoremen, college students, labor supporters, and the bosses’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).  Issues raised concern the right to picket, free speech, international solidarity and even academic freedom.

While the ship has long since sailed from Oakland, the case of the Neptune Jade is still reverberating through the California courts in a case that challenges the right of workers in one country to support strikers in another.

The Neptune Jade came from Liverpool England, where over 500 dockers had been fired in September 1995.  They were resisting a union-busting campaign of privatization of British docks.  The dockers had maintained a picket line for over a year when the Neptune Jade arrived to pick up seven containers.

The strikers could not prevent strike breakers from loading the ship, but they were not defeated.  They stamped the label “Scab” on ship and cargo, and alerted unionists in every port on its route.  “The World is our Picket Line,” they declared.  This proved true for the Neptune Jade.

An ad hoc Committee for Victory to the Liverpool Dockers went into action as soon as the Neptune Jade tied up in Oakland.  Sixty five union supporters, college students, Labor Party members, and members of other political groups descended on the docks at 7:00 AM Sunday.

Longshoremen refused to pass the picket line. Not only did the ship carry a scab cargo, but going through the line would endanger their health and safety.  Monday, the ship owners, through the PMA, went to arbitrators, to force the longshoremen to unload the ship. The restraining order limiting the picket line to four. Now the longshoremen’s health would not be endangered, they said.

By now the issue of the Neptune Jade was widely known.  Jerry Brown, former Governor of California, joined the pickets; Congressman Ron Dellums expressed support.  The longshoremen would not move, the picket line remained at full strength, and the police did nothing to enforce the courts ruling.

The stalemate continued into Tuesday.  Then the ship owners blinked.  The Neptune Jade, with its scab cargo still aboard, sailed away, presumably to its next port of call at Yokohama, Japan.

The shipowners, however had another plan. Try Vancouver: Maybe the Canadians would unload the cargo.  “Hell No!” said a line of Canadian pickets greeting the ship. “This is a scab ship filled by scab labor, and we are stopping it.”

The dispirited PMA could do nothing but send the ship to Yokohama where longshore men refused to unload the seven scab containers.  Next to Kobe where the dock workers there said “No!.” It was the end of the line. The Neptune Jade was sold, and acquired another name. The scab containers disappeared in the labyrinth of international trade.

PMA Goes to Court

This skirmish was a great victory for International Labor, but a war has yet to be won. The PMA, supported by ship owners around the world, is pursuing the battle on another front.  They have filed suit in California courts for a permanent injunction, forcing longshoremen to cross any and all future solidarity picket lines.

Then they sued for damages against every picket, the International and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and its officers, the Labor Party, and the Peace and Freedom Party.  The also sued the Laney College Labor Studies Club. They want reimbursement for a claimed $300,000 expense incurred by the Neptune Jade.

This legal maneuver has been used with deadly effect on British unions, draining their treasuries through legal fees and damages.

In pressing their case the PMA demanded the name of every one who picketed.  They called on Laney College to supply the membership list of the Labor Studies Club, even those who had not picketed.  The College refused, citing academic privilege among other grounds.

This demand for names seemed so outrageous that prominent citizens wrote PMA demanding their names be put on the list of picketers even though they were not there.  Meanwhile a judge declared all but one of the picketers were exercising their right to protest.

The single defendant left is Robert Irminger, a member of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, who was the picket captain.  PMA may demand in court that Irminger, as picket captain, name all the pickets on the line with him. They have also demanded that the ILWU supply all the documents relevant to the Neptune Jade.

The union will never comply.  This case will drag on for months unless PMA drops it. This is unlikely since the PMA has two goals: to force concessions from the ILWU in upcoming contract talks, and to end solidarity actions by Longshoremen anywhere in the United States.

The same offensive is being waged against longshoremen in ports around the world to create an unorganized casual labor force on the docks.

The Liverpool dockers are no longer on strike.  In January 1998 they were persuaded to accept a buyout of $47,000 apiece.  But longshoremen in Australia, and other countries are facing employer offensives and are getting international support.  Messages of solidarity have reached the ILWU from maritime workers around the world.

This struggle transcends the maritime industry.  Globalization of industry has created an international labor force.  This demands that Labor adopt a truly international world view. Speedy travel, fast communication, and the internet make united action across national boundaries easier than ever. From now on the slogan of Unionists is “An injury to one is an injury to all anywhere in the world.”

The offensive spearheaded by the PMA is an international attack on International Labor.

Hayden Perry is a member of SOLIDARITY in the Bay Area.

ATC 77, November-December 1998