Mersey Docks and Harbour Company’s 1995 lockout of its dockworkers in Liverpool, England — one of the last two unionized ports in Britain — became a cause célèbre for labor activists worldwide. In September 1997, as the second anniversary of the lockout approached, Robert Irminger decided to organize a protest in the dockers’ support. The 39-year-old deckhand on San Francisco’s ferries checked shipping schedules; he found that the Neptune Jade, a freighter leased by a company with close financial ties to Mersey, had just left a Mersey-administered port for Oakland, Calif.
When longshoremen arrived to unload the ship on the morning of the 28th, they found Irminger and 20 other labor activists with signs proclaiming: “The world is our picket line.” The dockers honored that line.
“Dockers identify with dockers everywhere,” Irminger says. “We work for the same companies and we share the same problems.”
After sitting idle during three days of picketing, the Neptune Jade departed for Vancouver, Canada. But word of the protest preceded the ship: In Vancouver, as later in Kobe and Yokohama, Japan, longshoremen refused to touch the ship’s disputed cargo. Irminger’s picket line had gone global. According to the BBC, the ship was eventually sold in Taiwan with the cargo still aboard.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the companies in charge of unloading the cargo, sued to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost earnings. “The PMA could not understand why people would, out of their own beliefs, picket for three days,” Irminger says. “They don’t understand solidarity.” His supporters did, however, and in February 1998, on one of his court dates, they shut down the entire Port of Oakland.
In November 1998, the PMA dropped the suit. Spokeswoman Joey Parr says it went counter to the “spirit of cooperation” between the PMA and the longshoremen’s union. And while the Liverpool dockers eventually settled without getting their jobs back, Irminger still considers his picket a success: “It shows that ‘international solidarity’ isn’t just an empty phrase.”