Dockworkers Worldwide Are Trying to Stop Russia’s War


While the chattering classes tweet and write in support of Ukraine, a less visible corps of helpers is taking action: dockworkers. At ports in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, and elsewhere, dockers have simply refused to handle cargo from Russian ships. And without dockworkers, the cargo is going nowhere.

It’s a reminder of how manual labor underpins just about everything we consume, even in supposedly sophisticated economies—and of how powerful some of that labor can be, in ways many people have forgotten. Today, virtually nobody in the West grows up being encouraged by parents, teachers, or society to become a dockworker, a train driver, or a utility repairman (or repairwoman).

On the contrary, policymakers and society belittle manual labor professions, a sorry trend painstakingly documented in the United States by Harvard philosopher Michael Mandel in The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good? Last month, Tony Blair, who as the United Kingdom’s prime minister set a target of sending 50 percent of all youngsters to universities, upped the ante, suggesting that 60 to 70 percent of young people ought to enroll in higher education.

While the chattering classes tweet and write in support of Ukraine, a less visible corps of helpers is taking action: dockworkers. At ports in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, and elsewhere, dockers have simply refused to handle cargo from Russian ships. And without dockworkers, the cargo is going nowhere.

It’s a reminder of how manual labor underpins just about everything we consume, even in supposedly sophisticated economies—and of how powerful some of that labor can be, in ways many people have forgotten. Today, virtually nobody in the West grows up being encouraged by parents, teachers, or society to become a dockworker, a train driver, or a utility repairman (or repairwoman).

On the contrary, policymakers and society belittle manual labor professions, a sorry trend painstakingly documented in the United States by Harvard philosopher Michael Mandel in The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good? Last month, Tony Blair, who as the United Kingdom’s prime minister set a target of sending 50 percent of all youngsters to universities, upped the ante, suggesting that 60 to 70 percent of young people ought to enroll in higher education.

But manual labor keeps the world moving. Global shipping efficiently transports 11 billion tons of cargo each year, 1.5 tons for every person on the planet. It does so thanks to the nearly 1.9 million seafarers who crew the world’s more than 74,000 commercial vessels—and the hundreds of thousands of dockworkers who load and unload the cargo, even after decades of automation.

Indeed, global shipping operates so efficiently that most people simply take its services for granted and give minimal attention to the seafarers—hundreds of whom are still trapped in Ukrainian ports, their ships unable to sail through the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov—or to the dockworkers. At most, the public wakes up when dockworkers announce they might go on strike, as more than 22,000 U.S. West Coast dockers did in March, threatening holdups at the biggest U.S. port, Los Angeles.

And in mid-March, it’s safe to say that the Kremlin woke up to the power of international dockworkers. That’s when the Swedish Dockworkers Union gave notice that it’s members would refuse to handle any Russian and Russia-linked ships docking in Swedish harbors as well as any Russian cargo arriving on other ships. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, we were like everyone else; we felt sorry for the Ukrainians,” Martin Berg, the union’s chair, told FP. “And we wanted to help our Ukrainian colleagues, but given that their ports are closed or destroyed, there wasn’t much we could do. But not handling Russian cargo is something we can do.” The dockers diligently avoid any Russian cargo, which is no easy task given that a cargo vessel carries thousands of containers. “We almost certainly miss some vessels, but lots of people, especially journalists, send us tips,” Berg said. “The public has been incredibly supportive.”

The dockers immediately got the attention of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “I am grateful to the Swedish trade union of port workers. … This is a good example that all public structures, all trade unions and business associations should emulate,” the Ukrainian president said on March 18.

The Swedish dockers have lots of company at ports around the world. In early March, British dockworkers refused to service a ship carrying Russian oil. On April 30, workers at the ports of Rotterdam (Europe’s largest) and Amsterdam refused entry to the oil tanker Sunny Liger, which was carrying Russian oil. “If dockworkers somewhere else in the world refuse the cargo, we will also refuse,” Niek Stam, head of the maritime division of the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, told Bloomberg. “We do that on the basis of international solidarity.” The European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have imposed sanctions on ships owned or managed in Russia, but other ships can still deliver and receive non-sanctioned Russian cargo.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which organizes U.S. and Canadian dockworkers (and announced the planned strike in March), also declared in March that its members would no longer touch Russian cargo. “West Coast dockworkers are proud to do our part to join with those around the world who are bravely taking a stand and making sacrifices for the good of Ukraine,” ILWU International President Willie Adams said when announcing the blockade.

It doesn’t matter what sanctions Western governments impose on Russian goods: If dockworkers refuse to process Russian cargo, it doesn’t reach its destination. These workers, barely noticed by the public and performing work looked down on by the university-educated classes, have the power to bring the Russian economy to a standstill. Most Russian oil reaches Europe via ships, not pipelines.

Time and again, dockers have made use of this tremendous power, mixed with a sense of international responsibility. In 1980, the International Longshoremen’s Association stopped handling Iranian cargo in response to the hostage crisis and stopped handling Soviet cargo in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 2010, Swedish, South African, and other dockworkers announced they refuse to service Israeli ships bound for Gaza, and in 2008, dockers in Durban, South Africa, declined to unload Chinese weapons bound for then-Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Interviewed by the Washington Post in 1980, a supervisor in charge of U.S. shipping bound for Odessa (as it was then) and Murmansk, Russia, astutely observed: “It looks to me like the union is setting foreign policy.”

As for the Swedish dockers and Ukraine, Berg said, “We know we can’t stop this war alone.” The Swedish dockers may, in fact, have to stop long before the war ends. At the end of April, the association of Swedish port owners reported the blockade to the authorities, and on May 6, the Swedish Dockworkers Union and the port owners will meet in court. Even if the court orders the dockworkers to immediately end their blockade, they will have prevented some six weeks’ worth of Russian goods from being unloaded. “This is not a global blockade,” said Victoria Mitchell, a maritime analyst at Control Risks. “The incident in Amsterdam involving the Sunny Liger was an act of solidarity by the dockworkers there with their Swedish counterparts. The impact of these blockades will depend on the strength of the respective union.” That means it’s unlikely there will be a global dockworker blockade, but, as Mitchell noted, “where it does happen, there’s a clear impact. If a ship has been refused once, it could be refused elsewhere.” And while the dockers’ blockade won’t (on its own) bring down the Russian economy, with sanctions, it’s having a significant symbolic and financial impact. The Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based think tank, estimates Russia’s GDP will shrink by 15 percent this year.

Elsewhere, too, manual workers are demonstrating how absolutely essential their work is. Thanks to Ukrainian railway workers, Ukrainian refugees are able to leave the county’s most dangerous parts and equipment can be delivered to Ukrainian troops. It’s one of the few positive Soviet legacies in the country—a highly professionalized and extensive railway system with a strong sense of serving the nation. In Belarus, meanwhile, railway workers sabotaged a Russian offensive that was supposed to bring Russian troops from Belarus to Ukraine, courtesy of Belarus’s excellent railway system. And Ukrainian utility repair crews have been busy keeping the lights on in the country and even managed to restore power at the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after Russian occupation forces withdrew.

While dockworkers, railway workers, and utility crews have emerged as crucial players curtailing Russia’s war against Ukraine, what most university graduates can do to end the war is opine on social media and conduct haphazard cyber aggression for Ukraine’s volunteer “IT Army.” As for keeping their own countries running—well, consider what happens when the bathroom floods or the power goes out. Let’s recognize the extraordinary societal value of manual workers. Let’s give them credit for keeping society running. And let’s thank them for using their power to help end Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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