‘We will not be a party to a war atrocity’

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Feature article from the summer 2019 issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine. Download a pdf or order a print copy here.
Leggi in italiano

A wildcat strike by Italian dockers blocked military equipment from reaching Saudi Arabia. Gianni Del Panta speaks to one of the strike organisers from Genoa’s autonomous dockers’ organisation, the Collettivo Autonomo Lavoratori Portuali.

Dockers in the Italian port city of Genoa are organising against the Saudi regime’s war on Yemen, twice blocking the unloading of equipment. The threat of a strike on 20 June forced shipping agency Delta to suspend the loading of 8 generators on the Saudi ship Bahri Jazan. The action on 20 June followed a successful strike on 20 May when dockers prevented the Bahri Yanbu from loading military equipment, eventually forcing the vessel to leave the port without its cargo. This action has reinvigorated a long-standing militant tradition of international solidarity among Italian workers, as the Genoa dockers are working to coordinate future actions with dockers in Naples and Trieste.

It also challenges the narrative that workers are racist, self-interested and reactionary. The story testifies that a well-organised and conscious working class can gain the upper hand against racism and xenophobic attitudes by counterposing them to principles of social justice, internationalism and solidarity.

How did you mobilise?

The spark that ignited the prairie was what happened in Le Havre. We became aware that dockers in the French port refused to load the same ship – the now “famous” Bahri Yanbu – just a few days before. We started talking to one another during and after our shifts and a widespread feeling emerged – no worker wanted to load weapons or military equipment intended to kill civilians somewhere in the world.

To organise the protest, we called a public assembly on 17 May, three days before the ship was expected to dock in the port of Genoa.We held the meeting in a hall which is historically symbolic for the dockers, as it was the starting point for several great struggles in previous decades. The scale of participation in the assembly was unexpected. There were dozens of workers and militants in the hall. Moreover, various associations and several leftist political parties joined the meeting. The large numbers of activists at the assembly put pressure on the mainstream unions from below. They were forced to call a strike on 20 May from 6am until noon. The mobilisation led by the Collective was important, fuelling a situation where the trade union confederations found themselves in a particularly difficult position. Either they could support the strike or risk losing contact with the workers. For obvious reasons, they chose the latter.

On 20 May, we got up very early, as usual, when the rest of the city was still sleeping. Expectations and fears were extraordinarily high that morning. It was a relief to see that the docks were already full of people before 6 o’clock in the morning. At least 60 workers joined the strike. They were also supported by several other militants, who held a banner reading “close the ports to weapons, open the ports to migrants”. The strike and a demonstration with the use of smoke bombs was a great success. The loading of the ship did not even start. And after two days, Bahri Yanbu left the port without any military equipment.

Tell us more about the Collective.

The Collective has a long history. It was formed for the first time in the early 1970s. It re-emerged on many occasions, especially at the height of workers’ struggles. When we decided to recreate the Collective in the early 2010s, the attempt was to keep the tradition of the working class movement in the docks of Genoa vital and alive.

The Collective is not only interested in fostering militant consciousness among workers, but also in participating in political activities in a broader sense. For instance, we took part in the sit-in called against the presence of CasaPound – a fascist organization – in Genoa on 23 May.

During the strike did you receive solidarity from other workers?

Yes. By far, the most important act was the communique issued by dockworkers in Marseille. They had come to know about our strike and mobilised in a very similar way, blocking the loading of weapons. In this regard, class struggle and international solidarity flew from France to Italy – that is, from Le Havre to Genoa – and then back to France, whilst the two countries are currently competing to control Libya in a new imperialist battle. There were also train drivers who operated in the dock and truckers who were waiting to board who showed solidarity with us in several ways. It was great to know that we were not alone.

How did the authorities react?

In the very first hours of the strike, police officers were anxious, dealing with an unusual situation. Once they understood that they were not the target of our action in any way, they calmed down. Something similar happened with the Port Authority. In contrast, the reaction of the governor of the region, Giovanni Toti, was rather different. Formally, he is still one of the leading figures of Silvio Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party. Yet, due to the rapid decomposition of the party, Toti is repositioning himself in a position much closer to the extreme right party led by Matteo Salvini, La Lega. The governor publicly attacked us on the social media.

We responded and also posted an open letter by a worker – who is not part of the Collective – on our Facebook page. In any case, the simple fact that Toti thought it necessary to engage with dockworkers on social media represented a clear victory for our mobilisation.

What are the next steps?

We know that there are 10 armoured trucks in a storage here in the dock in Genoa. We do not want to be a party to war atrocities in Yemen, or elsewhere in the world. Thus, we will try to block any attempt to load military equipment as vessel cargoes. Beyond international solidarity with a population under siege, there are also important issues of safety here. For us, it is much riskier to load weapons rather than other goods. In any case, we will keep you updated.

Gianni Del Panta is an Italian activist. Send messages of solidarity the Collettivo Autonomo via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pg/CollettivoAutonomo-Lavoratori-Portuali-1002559709815150/

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