For four days last September, labour and community supporters of the sacked Liverpool dockers in England picketed a scab ship, the Neptune Jade, in the port of Oakland in California.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the west coast of the US prevented the Neptune Jade's cargo from being unloaded. The ship sailed to Vancouver, Canada, where pickets and longshore workers gave it the same treatment, and the shipowner then attempted to discharge the containers in two ports in Japan, but the Japanese dockers stood fast. Finally, the ship was sent to Taiwan, where it was sold and renamed and its cargo discharged.
In response, Yusen Terminals, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA — representing shipowners) and Centennial Stevedoring Services took the picketers to court.
While the cases against many of the defendants have been dismissed, on the grounds of their right to free speech, Robert Irminger, ILWU member and the picket captain, and ILWU local 10 executive board member Jack Heyman are still being sued for monetary damages, possibly millions of dollars.
In tactics reminiscent of a McCarthyite witch-hunt, the companies' lawyers are using the "discovery" procedures to force individuals and groups to give over enormous amounts of information about the picketers. This includes faxes, e-mail messages, knowledge of any person who participated in the action, membership lists, meeting minutes, telephone records and diaries. The PMA has threatened to file suits against others whose names it has.
The ILWU has objected to most of the discovery requests on the grounds of the first amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly.
On July 22, a rally was held outside the latest court hearing, with various locals of the ILWU shutting down the port of Oakland to express their outrage at the PMA's assault on their union and Irminger. Workers overflowed the courtroom.
According to an ILWU lawyer, the judge could not bring himself to render a decision. "He seemed to find it difficult to tell the forces of capital that they could not martyr Irminger today with a ruling in the workers' favour; but neither was he willing to side openly with the boss by ruling against the workers."
The case was continued until August 12, and the judge asked the ILWU to prepare a list of documents that might be turned over if the court ruled against it and asked for a conference committee to review documents to consider which (if any) might be appropriately subpoenaed by the court to turn over to the PMA. The ILWU again refused.
The unionists hope the PMA has got the message — "no justice, no work!" — and that the company will drop the vendetta. If it continues to insist on a pound of flesh from Irminger, or anyone else, another protest action will be organised on August 12.
This important defence case has support from a broad section of organised labour in the US and other parts of the world. Statements of support from your union can be sent to the Neptune Jade Defence Committee by e-mail via Robert Irminger at <email@example.com>. For further information, go to <www.labornet.org/workers/jade> or write to PO Box 2574, Oakland, CA 94614.