Hundreds of police swarmed around the Webb Dock container terminal in Port Melbourne on the afternoon of Monday 22 January—using horses, capsicum spray, assaults, and arrests to break up a peaceful protest that had held up the docking of an Israeli-owned ship, the ZIM Ganges, for four days.

ZIM shipping is one of the ten biggest companies that dominate the world’s seaborne cargo trade. The company has also been deeply integrated into Israel’s war-fighting capacity—from 1948, as the company proudly records in the history section of its website, up to the present. The Jerusalem Post reported in October that ZIM “has offered Israel all of its vessels, ships and infrastructure, with a primary commitment to serving the national needs of Israel during the war with Gaza”.

As one of the major Israeli-owned companies operating in Australia, ZIM line ships and the docks which service them have been the target of several previous protests in Melbourne, as at other Australian ports and around the world. 

The latest protest in Melbourne to target ZIM kicked off on Friday 19 January with a couple of hundred protesters assembled at the four entrances to Webb Dock. Activists from Trade Unionists for Palestine, the Black Peoples Union, and a variety of other Palestine solidarity and civil disobedience groups were part of the protest. 

Crucially—as with the recent protests at the port of Fremantle in Western Australia—unionised waterfront workers refused to cross the picket lines at Webb Dock. Workers refused on safety grounds to be bullied by management into going to work through a potential battleground of cops, protesters and capsicum spray. 

On Friday evening, protesters leafleted workers to explain the situation. There was a good response and workers refused to force their way through the picket. Then twice on Saturday, cops violently cleared protesters away from the gates at shift change time. However the workers were still unwilling to cross, or even to board a bus that management wanted to use to transport the workers through the potentially hazardous situation at the gates.

This practical solidarity from the workers, combined with the sheer persistence of the protesters, meant that operations at Webb Dock were severely impacted. Two ships already tied up at Webb Dock couldn’t be worked, leaving the ZIM Ganges stranded at anchor in Port Phillip Bay.

For capital, time is money. When protesters delayed a ZIM ship from docking in Fremantle by 26 hours, a long-time waterfront worker estimated the cost to the company at up to $10,000 per hour. At Webb Dock we should also add the cost to VICT (the company that operate this part of the Port of Melbourne), and the two other ships and tens of thousands of containers stuck at Webb Dock during the protesters' blockade. 

By Saturday evening Bruno Porcheitto, the chief executive of VICT’s Webb Dock facility, was on 7 News sooking about the losses: “We're really desperate because every hour that passes, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars—in a day millions of dollars”.

Of course, this was point: to impose an economic cost on companies that profit from helping Israel’s war machine murder tens of thousands of Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. 

VICT attempted to shift some of this economic cost to its workers by announcing that those who refused to cross the protest lines would not be paid. The protesters responded with a crowdfunding appeal to pay the workers regardless, which rapidly surged past its $20,000 target.

By Sunday evening—with several hundred protesters gathered at the gates of Webb Dock following the regular weekend protest in the city centre organised by Free Palestine Melbourne—the company had resorted to ferrying workers across the water from other docks to bypass the picket. This removed any safety grounds for workers to refuse work. 

Punitive industrial laws introduced by Australia’s federal Labor government in the early 1990s threaten unions and workers with massive fines for taking industrial action, except during a formal enterprise bargaining period that rolls around every few years. At Webb Dock, the Maritime Union of Australia also has millions of dollars in damages hanging over its head from a spectacular union and community picket line in 2017, which was crucial to establishing the union’s presence at the facility. 

With mounting pressure on the union and workers, a series of discussions and arguments rolled around the protest. We’re in a very different political and industrial climate to the 1970s, when maritime workers in Australia were famous around the world for taking industrial action to disrupt shipping from the blood-soaked apartheid regime in South Africa. Nowadays, if we were to limit civil disobedience to circumstances where a union formally endorses it, we’d be saying there is to be no civil disobedience whatsoever in support of Palestine—obviously an untenable position for any serious solidarity movement. 

On the other hand, it’s obvious that civil disobedience is massively more effective if there is coordination with and some level of support from the workers involved—so it’s a big step to continue a picket when a generally sympathetic union won’t observe it. 

It wasn’t just the protesters feeling the pressure though. As the debates continued, the protest at the gates of Webb Dock stayed in place into Monday, sending cascading effects through the logistics industry. 

The peak body for Australia’s container freight employers is the Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA). CTAA director Neil Chambers told the Daily Commercial News on Monday morning: “The landside logistics impacts start to build up pretty quickly when you have these types of delays ... [T]here’s four vessels impacted at the moment, but after the Australia Day long weekend there’s some fairly large vessels due into VICT. The longer this goes on the more pressure mounts”.

So in came the cops.

It’s perfectly legal to manufacture implements of war in Australia, and to export them to Israel where they are used to kill tens of thousands of Palestinians. It's state policy that this genocide can’t be criticised (or even named) by healthcare workers, teachers, or anyone else in the public sector without the threat of discipline. Even so much as tweet about starvation being used as a weapon of war by Israel, and you can face the sack. So heaven forbid you actually manage to seriously interrupt the smooth flow of cargo from a company that declares itself to be at the service of Israel’s brutal military machine!

Ahead of a planned solidarity rally at 5pm on Monday, hundreds of riot police swarmed the whole area around Webb Dock. A preliminary report from Melbourne Activist Legal Support details just some of their brutality:  

"A person in a wheelchair was grabbed and dragged out of their chair by police ... Multiple uses of OC (Pepper) spray against people not posing any direct threat to police ... Severe mistreatment and use of force against medics and people being treated for the effects of OC spray ... At one point, a line of police horses was actively pushing people towards the M1 freeway. At other times people were being charged at by running police, given rapid and conflicting directions, [and] pushed into moving vehicles”.

How great to live in such a democracy, administered by such a progressive party as Labor, where protesters are brutalised to facilitate the free flow of capital and the smooth operations of genocide!

In the face of the overwhelming brutality of the police, protesters fell back but were unrepentant. The massive solidarity protests which have marched through city streets every weekend since October will continue. So will the protests which have spread from city streets to suburban councils to MPs offices and to the companies which profit from Israel’s genocidal project.