International Workers Day: Victories and Tragedies

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May 1 is International Workers Day. I know I knock the radical left a lot on this blog but I am a firm supporter of unions, here in the United States and across the world. A labor movement that is organized internationally can have a dramatic impact on political (even military) events, as evidenced by the recent refusal of South African dock workers to unload a shipment of Chinese arms bound for Zimbabwe:

A Chinese ship carrying arms destined for Zimbabwe was last night forced to turn back after South African unions refused to unload it, claiming that to do so would be “grossly irresponsible”, South African media reported.

The reversal is a humiliation for President Mbeki, who had said that the Government was powerless to stop the shipment of three million rounds of AK47 ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and more than 3,000 mortar rounds and mortar tubes to President Mugabe’s armed forces.

It was not clear last night where the ship was now destined, or whether it was trying to deliver the arms by a different route. The retreat, if confirmed, would represent a victory for human rights activists, who had filed a legal petition to block the transfer of the goods, and also for the 300,000-strong South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union, who had said that the arms would worsen the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

“Our members employed at Durban container terminal will not unload this cargo, neither will any of our members in the truck-driving sector move this cargo by road,” Randall Howard, a union spokesman, said.

“South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between Zanu (PF) and the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change],” he said.

This is a powerful and positive story that won’t be receiving much coverage in the U.S. and it should. There are also tragic stories that should be receiving more coverage. Here is one.

Two workplace fires in Casablanca, Morocco, killed over 60 workers. The fires occurred in a textile factory and mattress factory. Casablanca’s governor, Mohamed Kabbaj, claims the number of casualties was high due to overcrowding and the presence of flammable materials. However, reports from the scene are reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire including locked exits to prevent workers from escaping. The head of Casablanca’s civil protection unit, Mustapha Taouil, stated:

“We have information that the factory was closed, locking in the employees, which turned some of them into victims,” Taouil told Associated Press Television News. His report echoed accusations by some factory workers who said the owners had locked the doors, apparently to prevent the fire from spreading and save their merchandise.

Read more at Global Voices.

Read about the history of International Workers Day here (OK besides the last three paragraphs).

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