At ports in Melbourne, Sydney, and Fremantle, blockades have delayed shipments bound for Israel. In the face of crippling fines and the threat of jail, protesters are determined to disrupt Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Protesters from the Australian Palestinian community gather at Port Botany beside a container ship on November 21, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (James D. Morgan / Getty Images)

Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza has triggered massive protests around the world, and Australia is no exception. Along with weekly street demonstrations attended by tens of thousands, activists have staged protests at MPs offices and universities. In addition, the campaign in solidarity with Palestine has also targeted vessels owned by Israeli shipping line ZIM.

These actions have seen large groups descend on ports when ZIM vessels were due to dock. So far, they have at most delayed the loading and unloading of cargo. On their own, these blockades are unlikely to cause a major dint to ZIM’s bottom line. But as part of a growing international campaign, there’s evidence that this strategy can cumulatively make a difference.

The support of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has also been significant. But so far this support has not extended to a ban on unloading ZIM vessels. If the MUA were to impose such a ban, the union would face the full force of Australia’s punitive industrial laws, which make such solidarity actions incredibly costly.

Block the Boat

The first “Block the Boat” action in Australia took place on November 8 as several hundred protesters gathered in the early evening at the entrance of Melbourne’s international container terminal. Although the organizers reportedly had not planned to block the road, after attendees saw a truck carrying a ZIM-branded shipping container, they decided to stage a blockade, which lasted into the next morning.

The second action took place on November 11 in Sydney. Several hundred protesters staged a demonstration on the shores of Port Botany and dozens took to the waters in jet skis. Although they didn’t block any roads, the protesters reportedly delayed the arrival of a ZIM ship.

Then, on November 21, around four hundred to five hundred protesters returned to Botany Bay to block an access road into the port. After the demonstrators refused a police order to move on, they were broken up by riot squad officers and mounted police, with around twenty-three people arrested and charged under controversial new protest laws brought in by the New South Wales (NSW) state government. The laws — passed in 2022 after anti–fossil fuel blockades at Sydney ports — target people causing major economic disruption and provide for fines of up to $22,000 and/or a maximum jail sentence of two years. The protesters arrested on November 21 are yet to enter pleas and won’t face court until mid-January.

On December 2, Palestine solidarity protesters held up another ZIM ship in the West Australian port city of Fremantle by blocking two roads leading into the port. Although the activists allowed trucks to pass — reportedly to avoid committing a criminal offense — dockworkers respected the picket. According to the blockade organizers, this caused a roughly twenty-four-hour unloading delay for ZIM.

Most recently, on December 7, Melbourne was the scene of another blockade as dozens of protesters on kayaks established a picket line to block three ships working with ZIM under “partner voyage” agreements. The action reportedly caused delays of several hours.

Why Is ZIM Being Targeted?

ZIM is Israel’s oldest and largest shipping company and the tenth-largest in the world. Founded before the state of Israel was established in 1948, ZIM was responsible for ferrying numerous European Jewish refugees to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. As such, ZIM “represented a tangible manifestation of the Zionist dream.” Indeed, until the early 2000s, ZIM was partly owned by the state of Israel itself.

As Peter Cole recently wrote in Jacobin, pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) activists around the world have long targeted ZIM, staging actions in the United States, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Italy, South Africa, Belgium, and Tunisia. In the United States, major actions took place in 2014 and 2021 under the banner of “Block the Boat,” the same slogan now adopted by Australian activists.

Protest organizers have often highlighted the role that ZIM plays in importing and exporting military supplies from Israel. Trade Unionists for Palestine, for instance, have claimed that ZIM’s role in “the development of the Israeli war machine has been relentless,” adding that the company is “a major transporter of weapons of mass destruction.”

Direct evidence about the precise nature of the role ZIM plays in the Israeli military’s supply chain is hard to find. However, there are indications that it does have one, including by the company’s own admission. Following the outbreak of hostilities in October, for example, ZIM’s CEO pledged that the company’s ships “will be directed, as a first priority, to transfer cargo from anywhere in the world to Israel according to the requirements and needs of the Ministry of Defense and the government of Israel.” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has also reported that ZIM carries shipments from Australia to Israel. Despite this, the company itself is emphatic that its cargo to and from Australia doesn’t contain “arms shipments of any kind.”

The Australian government is also notoriously opaque about its arms exports. However, as the Guardian recently reported, the nation has exported around $13 million in arms and ammunition to Israel over the past five years. Information about which ships carry this cargo is not publicly available. Australian dockworkers who spoke to Jacobin confirmed that they also have no idea which shipments contain armaments.

Regardless, to pro-Palestinian activists, it’s somewhat immaterial whether or not ZIM is carrying arms shipments from Australia to Israel given that ZIM is being targeted as a company. The call from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions — which Australian activists are heeding — doesn’t ask for protests or blockades of particular shipments. Instead, it calls for “action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege.” Given the overall logistical importance of ZIM in Israel, this qualification seems to be met.

Are the Protests Hitting ZIM?

While the blockades on November 8 and 21 delayed trucks from entering and exiting ports, their precise economic effect of this on ZIM is unclear. The impact of the December 7 kayak blockade is similarly unclear. Further, the impacts would have been felt by multiple companies, not just ZIM. While media reports following November 8 suggested the Melbourne shipyard had “ground to a halt,” it’s unlikely that blocking a single road would lead to a total shutdown, unless port management decided it was a security threat.

However, when pickets have prevented a shift change at the port, they have been able to shut down operations. After all, as dockworkers explained to Jacobin, without fresh workers, a port does essentially shut down. According to Fremantle organizers, by preventing two shift changes, they caused a roughly twenty-four-hour delay. Similarly, the November 21 protest in Sydney was seemingly on the verge of also preventing a scheduled 10 p.m. shift change, rendering the timing of the New South Wales police clampdown potentially more significant.

The actions have so far not totally stopped any ZIM ships from unloading or loading cargo. However, according to industry publications and secondhand reports from ZIM crew members, the company has been forced to reschedule docking times. Protest organizers have said that these delays can cost shipping lines tens of thousands of dollars per hour.

The Fremantle picket organizers, for instance, claimed their action cost the company “tens of thousands,” although one anonymous estimate from a port worker places the figure at more than $150,000. ZIM has not been forthcoming about the costs of any of the protests.

Maritime logistics expert Peter van Duyn told Jacobin that a delay of twelve to twenty-four hours could cost a company tens of thousands, but stressed that, by themselves, the Australian actions were unlikely to be hitting ZIM’s bottom line.

As van Duyn explained:

Half a day of delay is certainly not going to be detrimental to the company. They get held up because of other things sometimes — because of the weather, because there’s no berth available. They just absorb that as part of the cost of doing business. So, I don’t think they’ll be lying awake at head office because of a delay like that.

However, according to Sydney-based Trade Unionists for Palestine organizer Nick Riemer, “the point of the action is mainly political, and the actual economics are less important.” Yet the second Sydney protest garnered far more attention than the first because “there was that element of economic and logistical interference with ZIM and the port — that functioned as a sign that it’s serious.” As Riemer continued:

The actual dollar figure matters but it’s probably less important than the political message we send by showing we’re serious enough to be causing ZIM and the port a serious operational headache and also making some economic impact on ZIM’s bottom line.

The further reality is that protesters are only targeting a small portion of the dozens of ZIM ships that arrive at Australian ports each month. However, while single delays are ultimately a small part of a large operation, it’s also important to consider that the protests are part of a global campaign whose effects are cumulative.

Indeed, previous protracted campaigns against ZIM may have had significant consequences. In 2014, ZIM discontinued its US West Coast service for several years, which, according to activists, was due to a prolonged Block the Boat campaign. ZIM didn’t respond to a request for comment on this claim.

MUA’s Tradition of Solidarity

According to van Duyn, industrial action in recent months at stevedore company DP World has hit shipping companies operating in Australia far harder than Block the Boat protests. This is because ports are some of Australia’s few remaining workplaces where the workforce is 100 percent unionized, allowing the Maritime Union of Australia to effectively flex its collective muscle.

The MUA has long been one of the nation’s most left-wing and militant unions, and its leadership is vocal in its support for the ZIM protests. After all, the union has a long history of blocking shipments in solidarity with international causes. In the 1940s, Australian dockworkers staged shipping bans in support of Indonesia’s independence struggle against Dutch colonialism. Some decades later, they organized bans against South African shipping in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, earning the union special thanks from Nelson Mandela. As Jon Piccini writes, although the union’s history is complex and not above criticism, there are ample cases in which the MUA can rightly say its actions were on the right side of history.

Although, practically speaking, the MUA does have the power to block ZIM vessels, doing so would expose the union to massive legal risks. To some extent, this is not a new situation as strikes have always been illegal in Australia. However, for much of the twentieth century, unions wielded a de facto right to strike. This was in no small part eroded by the industrial relations system that came into being between the 1980s and 2000s, which imposed steep penalties for striking outside of tightly delimited circumstances.

While the MUA’s industrial actions at DP World terminals fit inside these circumstances, blocking a ZIM ship in solidarity with Palestinian trade unionists would not — and the legal consequences for the union would likely be severe. As MUA organizer Shane Reside wrote several years back, breaking Australia’s industrial relations (IR) rules “unleashes the hell and fury of employers in the form of multi-million dollar fines on individuals and their unions, and even criminal sanction.”

The MUA has been willing to test Australia’s IR laws — which it considers the “harshest in the developed world” — and has faced severe consequences for doing so. In 2020, the union had to fork over $2.2 million in damages for a two-week strike that was found to be unlawful. That fine reportedly claimed around a third of the union’s cash reserves at the time. As labor law professor Shae McCrystal has written, steep penalties such as these can “ultimately cripple a union.”

Given these risks, MUA leaders have been walking a fine line, simultaneously issuing strong statements in support of the campaign while refraining from placing bans on loading ZIM ships. Compared to many other unions, however, the MUA’s support has been far more explicit. The Sydney branch, for instance, has urged its members to join the protests, while MUA officials have spoken at port protest rallies in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Aside from the financial risk to the union for enforcing a blockade, there’s also a question as to whether the union has enough internal support to undertake such a risky action. As a democratic union, MUA leaders would only decide to escalate support for the blockades if they were confident of sufficient internal support. And while some rank-and-file MUA members actively champion the Block the Boat campaign, reportedly the level of support has not yet reached a critical mass.

Despite this, as mentioned above, dockworkers have respected community-led pickets. Where blockades are attended by large numbers of people — and when police are present — they make it possible for dockworkers to cease work on the grounds of health and safety concerns. Not only can these concerns be legitimate, they allow the union to show solidarity while avoiding anti-strike laws. In the United States, where political strikes are also illegal, dockworkers have respected ZIM pickets using a similar legal loophole. The upshot for the Block the Boats campaign is readily apparent.

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