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Australian Trade Unionists For Palestine Are Blocking Israeli Ships

Above photo: Protestors 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.

A lot of people have started to connect that what happened in Australia—the historical process of colonization in Australia—is now being played out for them in a very visible way over in historic Palestine.

And that’s really causing people to… fight.

Over the past month and a half, with each passing day, more Israeli bombs have fallen on Gaza. More bodies have been blown apart and buried under the rubble. Close to 2 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes. The world has borne witness to a genocidal military campaign to clear out Gaza once and for all. And every day, every hour, it feels like the chance to stop one of humanity’s most inhumane crimes is slipping through our fingers.

And, even with this week’s temporary “humanitarian pause” and exchange of prisoners and hostages, the powers that be have shown no interest whatsoever in listening to the thundering calls for a permanent ceasefire that are coming from governments and mass demonstrations around the world, particularly the Biden administration here in the United States, the increasingly fascistic Netanyahu government in Israel, and the arms manufacturers and war profiteers who are raking in billions from manufacturing mass death. This is prompting activists and people of conscience around the world to take direct action themselves to try to disrupt the war machine. And that includes working people in trade unions. In Australia, for instance, direct actions and protests have exploded across the country.

As Mostafa Rachwani recently reported for The Guardian,

Across the country, protests continue to be held in major cities. They include a daily sit-in in front of the Victorian parliament, weekly protests at the Sydney office of the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and prayer vigils at various locations.

… Protests are being held against Israeli shipping company Zim at Port Botany in Sydney and at the Port of Melbourne, where there is an ongoing presence.

Paddy Gibson, an organiser at Trade Unionists for Palestine, said workers were keeping an eye out for future Zim arrivals in order to facilitate snap protests.

“Our intention is to disrupt the businesses, and we’re calling for a boycott of Zim shipping,” Gibson said.

The group Trade Unionists for Palestine made headlines in early November when they took action at the Port of Melbourne, blocking entry roads, preventing trucks from accessing the area where the Israeli shipping line operates.

Hundreds also participated in a direct action to prevent an Israeli cargo ship from docking at Sydney’s Port Botany on Nov. 11, and that included many members of Trade Unionists for Palestine.

To talk about all of this and more, I got to speak with April Cumming and Seb Hand, two members of Trade Unionists for Palestine who have been there on the ground in Australia, taking action with their fellow unionists to disrupt the war machine, to force a ceasefire, and to end the violence of Israel’s 75-year occupation of Palestine. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which we recorded on Friday, Nov. 17 at The Real News Network studio in Baltimore.

Seb Hand: I’m Seb. I am an early [childhood] educator, so I work in a kindergarten setting.

April Cumming: My name is April. I’m an organizer with United Workers Union, which is a large blue-collar union here in Australia of about 150,000 members. I organize in early childhood [education] with members like Seb. I also work in the background, doing strike and event logistics. I’ve been doing that for seven years.

Maximillian Alvarez: And you are both members of Trade Unionists for Palestine over in Australia, correct?

Seb Hand: Yes, that’s correct. It’s a nice rank-and-file organization that’s popped up pretty organically.

Maximillian Alvarez: So, I want to talk all about that, but before we discuss how Trade Unionists for Palestine itself came to be and the actions y’all have been taking over there in Australia, I wanted to take a quick step back… You both, along with the other members of Trade Unionists for Palestine—you’re all working people just like the rest of us. I want to start there. Tell us more about who you are, what you do, what working life is like for you and workers like yourself in Australia these days. And then tell us about how you came to be active fighters in the movement to stop Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its genocidal destruction of Gaza. Walk me through how those two parts of your lives have converged in this moment.

Seb Hand: So, working as an early-years educator—that’s basically working with children, educating them, helping them get the best set up for their life. Been working in that sector for five years now, and working in a sector like that, you interact with a lot of children and families from very diverse backgrounds. And the vast majority of them, particularly where I work, are people who either are, or are directly related to people, from Palestine. They have some connection to the people and the suffering going on there, and just working in that sector, you can very easily rationalize that this is something that’s really important to stand by.

In regards to what it’s like to live in Australia for working class people: It’s quite difficult. The cost of living is through the roof, and because we’ve got a monopoly in our food provider industry, which is colloquially referred to as “ColesWorth,” there’s a lot of price gouging in regards to just basic necessities. So I think there is this convergence for a lot of working-class people, between the frustration of their own living conditions and then, when it comes to Palestine, seeing the most violent way that that plays out. I think working people here have developed quite a lot of international solidarity with the suffering that’s going on in Palestine.

April Cumming: To echo what Seb was saying: The sector that I organize in—and the sector that Seb works in (and he works very hard, he’s a very inspirational leader and a very inspirational educator for children, and he has been doing it for many years)—it’s a sector that leans very heavily on visa workers, primarily women who are on their student visas. It’s a sector that burns through workers and pays them very, very low rates. Essentially, the thing that strikes me as an organizer when I go out to speak to educators like Seb at their sites is that these are incredibly skilled and important workers who have been through an education process to become the professional educators that they are, but they’re being paid what we call in Australia “award rates.” These are rates that basically amount to the bare minimum workers can be paid—there’s no agreement there. And this is the majority of the sector. This is the for-profit sector. The bottom line is about how much money they can make.

So, when you have these conversations with educators, you see that they are really, really feeling the strain, and we as organizers are experiencing it through them. The cost-of-living crisis, the fact that they’re working all hours, they’re working overtime (and they’re not really getting paid properly for that overtime sometimes)—the cumulative impact of all this leads to them not being able to do things like go on holidays. And it creates this kind of two-tier labor system within the sector, which is reflected elsewhere in Australia.

There’s this false idea that Australia is this “lucky” country. But, unfortunately, Australia’s actually been built on (A) colonialism, which, of course, relates to what we’re discussing today, but also (B) the very real exploitation of migrant workers. What’s really inspiring, though—and it’s one of the reasons I’m so involved in what we’re doing, taking action for Palestine—is these educators are actually relating to this struggle and they’re turning out. We have more educators coming to our rallies every week, week after week, because people are becoming aware that this is a class thing and this struggle does not have [national] boundaries. They relate to what they see. They relate to seeing women and children in Gaza. They think, “My god, there are educators in that country that are trying to do the job that we are doing under unimaginable pressures.”

So, that’s the context in terms of what’s happening here in Australia. I’ve worked in this space for about 15 years. My background is policy work in the UK. I previously worked for a group called Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, which is an advocacy group within the Westminster bubble (for want of a better word) that was, for many, many years, trying to build a progressive case for Palestinian statehood, for the lifting of Israel’s blockade, the separation policy, etc. That feels like many years ago now, considering where the Labour Party is these days, but that’s how I came to this issue originally. And the work that we’re doing here as a union just dovetails so much with that struggle.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, from one settler colony to another, I can relate to a lot of what y’all just said.

I feel like I’m seeing a lot of that same sentiment, or at least some of it, here in the United States, even if it’s not always translating to mass action. Our labor movement is certainly lagging behind other parts of the world where workers and unions are standing up with courage against the genocide that we are watching unfold. I’m sad to say that a lot of labor unions here in the United States have not done so, but many rank-and-file workers have, many union locals have, many groups formed by rank-and-file workers across sectors have, and that is very heartening.

But I asked the last question the way that I did for a specific reason. Because, while people around the world are taking action to try to end this madness in Gaza, while people of conscience are seeing Israel’s attempts to wipe Palestine off the face of the earth and they are coming to the realization that they need to stand up and do something, whatever they can, to stop this horror, corporate and mainstream media, if they cover these actions at all, will do what they always do when they talk about protests. They talk about these demonstrations as if the people demonstrating just appeared from nowhere, as if they crawled out of some Antifa basement, as if they’re all just “professional” activists or agitators. But what anyone who takes a second to look will see is that these demonstrations are filled with just regular people. I was down in Washington DC two weeks ago for The Real News, at the largest pro-Palestine march in US history. I was interviewing people for The Real News Network.

You can see for yourself: A lot of the folks I talked to are just regular people like you and me. Yeah, of course there were activists there, but there were over 100,000 people at that march! You can’t fill that much space in Washington DC without just a lot of regular people.

So, that’s why I asked the first question that way. And I want to piggyback onto that and focus on Trade Unionists for Palestine specifically, the work that y’all have been doing there, and the actions y’all have been taking. I first learned about y’all when I saw a tweet from my colleague over in the United Kingdom, the great Taj Ali, showing a group of you out there in Melbourne stopping trucks from loading cargo headed to Israel. That was really wild to see. Tell us how this group came together, how you both have been involved in it, and what has been happening since that action y’all took early in November.

Seb Hand: Like I said earlier, Trade Unionists for Palestine was formed very organically. It wasn’t like some on-high authority said, “Here we go. Here’s Trade Unionists for Palestine.” It was born from a lot of unions coming together and saying, “We need to take a stand. This is something that is just simply not acceptable. We can’t just sit idly by.”

The action that happened at the port was super cool, to really oversimplify it. What happened was: There was a ship that was headed for Botany Bay in Sydney, but it had to go through Port Melbourne first. So we organized this rally out in front of Port Melbourne. The police basically came out in full force to tell us to sod off. There were pretty high security levels—a very aggressive police presence.

We ended up huddling around this one spot where we were listening to speeches and discussing what else we could do. And I can’t remember which company it belonged to, but one of the Israeli trucks came through, and people were just so frustrated. All of the workers there were so frustrated, just seeing all of these trucks come through. Eventually, we had just had enough, and we very spontaneously went onto the road to stop it, to stop that truck from going in, to stop the cargo from being sent off to help Israel profit on the genocide of Palestinians. So we sat there in the road until we could send it back. We did not let it go through. It was a very powerful moment. And I think it showed a lot of people that they actually do have this power. It’s not something that is given to us. We have it already. We just need to exercise it.

April Cumming: And, again, just to further echo what Seb said: The actual group Trade Unionists for Palestine came together out of an open letter that rank-and-file unionists started to sign. So it was, I think, two lone members of a union called the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), who were so frustrated at the lack of leadership from our own union executives that they started this open letter that got passed around. And the next thing you know, very organically, every single rank-and-file unionist is signing it—members as well as organizers. So there was this sudden coalition being formed that brought together all of the industrial knowledge from the different types of union and the different sectors and industries that they cover. And what we found was that unions were actually doing this on their own as well. Within their own separate unions, workers were already having conversations and thinking about pressure points we could target for direct actions, thinking about where we could turn up and use our bodies to occupy space, go to rallies, etc. And banner-painting sessions have become a really big thing, too, because that kind of activity also brings in members who might not be ready to come out to an action, but they’re still able to engage with the issue through something that is quite accessible, and we can sit around painting and have conversations about the history and why they need to be involved as unionists.

The actual action at the port was organized within the Trade Unionists for Palestine group—and, crucially, it brought in the community, because one of the things that we need to make sure doesn’t happen here is that unionists are organizing in isolation of the communities that are actually affected. So we’re speaking to APAN (the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network), one of the biggest groups here that advocate for Palestinian rights, and other rank-and-file groups within Melbourne to build this coalition and to start thinking about how we can do this in a sustainable way.

The ZIM truck that came down the road that day turned up out of the blue, really. We weren’t sure that trucks were even going to come, but it turned up the road and there was this wonderful moment where I think we were all listening to a speaker at the rally that had been organized, and everyone’s head just turned, and we see this truck coming toward us, and then there’s this rush of human beings running into the middle of the road, and then the banners come out, everyone ends up sitting down, and we stay sitting, and we’re chanting, and the chant is, “Up, up with liberation, down, down with occupation.” And it goes on and on and on for about 20 minutes. And then this uncle gets up to the front and tells us about his family who have, in the last week, died. And he shows pictures to the crowd of his family who have died. As far as I know, this man is still there now in a tent by the side of that road.

I think what’s happening right now is there is a space being formed for grief, and that grief is making people show up. And I think that, even if you are not a Palestinian person, when you’re close to that grief, you understand why it’s so necessary.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. That’s really beautifully and powerfully put by both of you. Could you say a little more about that space? What does the overall scene look like over there in Australia? As I said, we are seeing a tremendous amount of action happening here in the US, but it’s happening in different pockets: it’s happening in train stations; it’s happening with people demonstrating in front of Elbit Systems headquarters and manufacturing facilities (these are the sites where groups like Palestine Action are stopping the production and shipping of weapons that are going to Israel); people are pressing their elected officials.

There’s also a real battle going on between the narratives right now. People are seeing one totally lopsided account on certain corporate media channels and they’re flooding to channels like this to see what else is out there, and they’re realizing that they’ve been lied to for so long. And all of that is happening amidst spikes in hate crimes, antisemitic crimes, crimes against Muslims and Arabs—this is a real tense moment in the country. There’s also a lot of McCarthyite repression happening on college campuses. People are losing their jobs speaking up for Palestine, etc. We’ll get to that in a second. Basically, there’s a real mix of stuff happening here right now, all seemingly at once.

I wanted to ask if you could give us a bit of a snapshot of what else is happening over there. Do you feel that you’re alone in this fight over in Australia, or is it the opposite? Are there more actions that y’all are taking part in, more groups that you’re seeing coming to the fore and speaking up about this? What has the response been from the powers that be, like Parliament and Anthony Albanese?

Seb Hand:  Well, the one super awesome thing is that the community movement, the rank-and-file movement, is growing—and growing, and growing. I don’t remember the exact number of the last march through the city, but it was over 200,000 from memory. It was huge. And we’ve got these mass movements of people who are saying, “No! This is ridiculous.” On the flip side, we’ve got elected officials coming out, and some are blatantly saying that Israel’s in the right, while others are being a bit more vague with how they reach the same conclusion, and people are really getting frustrated with that. The community is getting annoyed and is starting to show that in a very open way.

A lot of people have started to connect that what happened in Australia, and is still happening—the historical process of colonization in Australia—is now being played out for them in a very visible way over in historic Palestine. And that’s really causing people to raise their consciousness to this situation, to want to understand why these things are happening and how we can fight them. It’s been super inspiring to see more and more people who would traditionally not want to do any organizing come out and try to start mass movements.

April Cumming:  Going back to the struggle to counteract partial representation of the truth, fake news, and propaganda—I’ve never seen such propaganda in my life as I’m seeing right now. It’s almost constant. You feel like you’re being gaslit, because you see the thing with your eyes, your own eyes, it’s verified by an expert in the area, and then you’re told that you don’t see it, and it’s maddening, and it makes you feel very frustrated. On the flip side, though, that gaslighting really encourages you to turn out. That’s that frustration of not being heard, not being seen, that turns people out.

One of the things that we are doing as a union, the United Workers Union, is we are actively going to our sites with flyers and with information about ways people can become involved. And we’re having what we call “toolbox meetings,” where the organizer will go and have conversations with leaders at that site about the history of this issue and about the part that unions have played historically in the fight against apartheid, in raising up the voices of people who aren’t represented in the news, who aren’t generally listened to, and who are homogenized and othered.

So, I would say, it’s incumbent on us as union leaders, people like me and Seb, to continue to have conversations to actually break through, because it’s always much more powerful having that conversation with a human being in front of you, someone you trust and who you know, than sitting and listening to the propaganda that’s fed to you. And, for any union organizer reading this in Canada or in America, that is such an important thing for us to do right now, because union organizing isn’t just about your site and it’s not just about your industry; it’s about fighting for the broader social good in the world and being part of that fight.

Maximillian Alvarez:  It’s exciting to hear what you both just said, because it means that the future is not yet written. We are seeing a real battle over the future happen right now, and what happens next depends on what regular people like you and me and everyone reading this do right now.

And, like you said, April, we gotta take sledgehammers and pickaxes to that armature of ideology that has held so many of us on one side of this issue for so long. We have only ever been fed one side of the story here. And, as I said, we ourselves in the United States are living in a successful settler colony that was founded upon the dispossession of the land and the genociding of the Indigenous people who lived here before us. I think that is the role that Israel always played for a lot of Americans: it’s like this symbol upon which we could project our own lingering colonial guilt and have it washed clean. Because Israel always seemed to be the most sympathetic version you could have of the settler-colonial project, and if that project could be redeemed through Israel, maybe it could be redeemed for countries like the US and Australia, too. That’s the story we were told, at least. And that story has meant a lot to the people who believed it, and still believe it: the story of Jewish people in need of a homeland, after the Holocaust, after centuries of persecution. There was nowhere to go in Europe—Jews needed their own nation. That’s what we were told. But we weren’t really taught about the people who were already there, in Palestine, in the land where this new nation would be erected.

Our media and our education don’t require us to ask those questions that people are now asking themselves. And the truth is hitting people really hard. But we need to be steadfast and learn and understand as much of this as we can. At the bare minimum, though, all you need to understand is that this death, destruction, and violence is wrong. This shouldn’t happen. This can’t happen. We cannot let this happen. We cannot let our world go on, we cannot look our children in the face, if this becomes permissible, if we do nothing to stop it. But you can do something to stop it. People like Seb and April are doing something. Your fellow workers are doing something. Whatever it is, you can do something. And that is always the message of labor, it’s baked into the cake of the labor movement: we are stronger together, and we are fighting for a better life for all working people around the world, because working people deserve better than this.

I want to end on that note really quickly. As people start to see these connections, as the blinders start to come off, as people allow themselves to feel sympathy for dying Palestinian children and dying Israeli children, as they are dealing with that all at once and want to know what they can do, but they’re worried about the McCarthyite fog that has settled on the country—people getting doxxed on their college campuses for going to a demonstration, even if they’re not speaking at it, people getting fired from their jobs, people becoming pariahs within their own families—what would your message be to your fellow workers in North America and beyond about why you have taken that step to get involved, and why it’s important that they do?

Seb Hand:  My message would be pretty short and sweet: Keep fighting, get united, get organized, and stay educated. We are stronger together. People don’t like people who fight for good because it’s easier to stick with the status quo—that’s not hard to do. It’s hard to fight for what’s right. So organize, get united, figure out how you can create a movement or a community that will support you, and keep yourself educated on what’s going on so you know how to combat anyone who tries to feed you disinformation.

April Cumming:  I would say that this is a moment that we really need to rise to as a global movement of workers. One of the things that really needs to be said right now is: if any of your audience reading this right now are not in a union, they should join a union. Find out who your union is, go online, find it, join it, and organize, because trade unions are one of the few really good resilient structures for engaging working people and channeling all of our energy towards taking action for what’s right. Okay? Join your union, organize, as Seb said. And if you’re in a union already, start to have conversations about what you as members are comfortable doing. Speak to your delegates, speak to your rep, find out what’s happening at a community level, turn out, and use Signal to communicate (Signal is a relatively safe platform to talk about actions that you can be part of).

What we’re talking about here, the need to join a union—it’s not just about protecting yourself now, it’s not just about having a community around you that will protect you, but it’s about building a country where nobody is allowed to dox somebody, where nobody is allowed to fire somebody because of their viewpoint. You’re strong enough, as a union workforce, to prevent that from happening. Because, in a democracy, nobody should be shut down for standing up for peace.

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