The Occupy Wall St movement is turning its attention to the shipping industry tomorrow when a group of protestors are expected to descend on APM Terminals’ New Jersey facility in Elizabeth ahead of the arrival of the Maersk Carolina.
Activists have launched a BlocktheBoat campaign in both New Jersey and Charleston, South Carolina, where the vessel is due to call after departing New York, in protest against the fact that it is carrying goods for US retail giant Walmart.
They claimed that the goods include garments made in the Bangladeshi factory owned by garment manufacturer Tazreen Fashions, part of the Tuba Group, which suffered from a fire in late November in which 112 people perished.
The incident brought international attention to the country, focusing on working conditions in its burgeoning garment industry, and also turned focus on the western retailers that source their goods from there. While Walmart claimed that it had stopped sourcing from this particular supplier, an investigation by the New York Times established that five of the factory’s 14 production lines were continuing to produce garments for the retailer.
Shortly afterwards, Wlamart issued the following statement: “The Tazreen factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies. Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
However, Occupy activists claimed that the Maersk Carolina, due to arrive at the terminal on Tuesday morning, is carrying garments made in the factory, and is bussing protestors in from Manhattan to New Jersey early tomorrow morning – although it was unclear what effect this would have on the physical cargo operations at the port itself.
A spokesman for Maersk Line North America declined to comment on the possible effects the action might have on operations at the terminal, citing commercial confidentiality between the carrier and its customers.
However, Inchcape Shipping Services North America VP Chuck Carmichael said there was unlikely to be much disruption to actual operations as activists would only be outside the terminal area. “Protesters could be outside the terminal but they do not have access to the terminal or the berth via the waterway.
“’Block the Ship’ is more a symbolic term than a physical action. The protesters are assembling in an IKEA parking lot in Elizabeth not far from the terminal. I doubt that much will happen,” he said.
Action has also been promised at Charleston’s Wando Welch terminal, which is the vessel’s next scheduled port of call, on 20 December, and activists said they would warn potential protestors in other east coast port cities should the line decide to divert the vessel.
The action comes against a background of continuing negotiations between the US east and Gulf coasts dockworkers’ union, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and employers’ association, US Maritime Alliance, over a new master contract.
The previous contract expired at the end of September and a 90-day extension to discussions was agreed with the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. That extension is due to expire on 29 December and some container shipping lines have announced the imposition of surcharges should strike action take place. ILA members have authorised ILA president Harold Daggett to call a strike across the region should a deal fail to be sealed by the deadline.
Shipper representatives last week reiterated calls for the two parties to secure an agreement before the extension expires.
“A failure to reach an agreement in advance of the December 29 deadline would not only result in hardships for retailers and their customers, but also for the ports and the millions of workers that count on an uninterrupted supply chain to earn their living,” said Retail Industry Leaders Association president Sandy Kennedy.
Protestors claimed to have delayed the unloading of the Maersk Carolina in the US east coast port of Charleston this morning as members of the International Longshoremen’s Association initially refused to cross picket lines.
It is the second action this week that protestors have taken to attempt to prevent the Maersk vessel, said to be carrying garments for Walmart from its Bangladesh factories, from unloading. On Tuesday, protestors arrived at APM Terminals’ New Jersey facility in Elizabeth, but union members had already begun work by the time the port had allocated the protestors a place to campaign.
Before they crossed the lines, ILA members in Charleston checked with the union’s legal department, which advised them that were obliged to cross the line and unload the ship.
However, ILA members expressed solidarity with the Occupy Wall St movement, which is trying to force Walmart to ensure better conditions for its workers in Bangladesh, following a fire at a garment factory which killed more than 100 people. The factory was owned by Tazreen Fashions, which made garments for one of Walmart’s subcontracted suppliers at the time of the fire.
“There was a significant delay while the union checked the legal obligations for its members,” George Hopkins, who participated in the protests along with some 50 others, told The Loadstar. “They wanted to honour the picket line but couldn’t legally. But the fact that the ship unloaded late, and the protest got the attention of the port authorities and Maersk meant that our point was made.”
Protestors can prevent ships from discharging cargo if longshoremen respect their picket lines. Unionized workers don’t have to cross lines if they feel their health and safety is in jeopardy, which has happened on previous occasions at west coast ports such as Seattle.
Maersk declined to comment, citing company policy not to talk about issues concerning their customers.