Argentina honours Saint John longshoremen for 1979 act of solidarity

Written by Marie-Christine Allard on March 23, 2010

Argentina’s Ambassador to Canada, Arturo Guillermo Bothamley, presented the Orden de Mayo to Pat Riley, business agent for the Saint John local of the ILA, for the union’s 1979 protest that prevented the shipment of heavy water to Argentina’s military dictatorship. Photo by Rodrigo Gutiérrez Hermelo.

They said, “We don’t care about our wages
and we don’t care about the boss.
When your brothers and sisters are dying,
there’s lines you just don’t cross.”
No Hot Cargo for Argentina!
No Hot Cargo for Argentina!
No Hot Cargo for Argentina!

—Maritimes folk singer Nancy White, in “No Hot Cargo,” a song inspired by the 1979 event this article celebrates.

FREDERICTON—Hundreds gathered at Lily Lake Pavilion in Saint John on Saturday, March 13, to honour the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 273 for what has been called “the single most dramatic example of Canadian trade union solidarity with workers in the Third World.”

Argentina’s Ambassador to Canada, Arturo Guillermo Bothamley, presented the Orden de Mayo to Pat Riley, business agent for the Saint John Local of the ILA, for the union’s 1979 protest that prevented the shipment of heavy water to Argentina’s military dictatorship—an action that resulted in the release of 11 political prisoners. The Orden de Mayo is the highest award given by the Argentine government to citizens of another country for courage, honour and solidarity.

“We are going to pay an old debt from the heart to some people who put their security at risk for people thousands of miles away,” said Bothamley at the ceremony.

On the morning of July 3, 1979, port workers refused to cross a picket line on the west side of the Saint John harbour the day the workers were supposed to ship a load of heavy water to Argentina for the CANDU nuclear reactor Argentina had bought from Canada in 1973. Heavy water is a component necessary for the functioning of nuclear reactors fueled by unenriched uranium.

The picket had been organized by the NO CANDU committee, the New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the Saint John and District Labour Council. With signs and buttons stating “NO CANDU FOR ARGENTINA” and “HOT CARGO”, the protesters demanded the release of 17 political prisoners from the prisons of Argentina, most of whom were trade unionists.

The action was a result of a national campaign started by the Group for the Defence of Civil Rights in Argentina – initiated by a number of Argentine expatriates – in response to the brutal military dictatorship that took power in Argentina in 1976.

“The 1979 Argentine military junta was a rogue government in league with other rogue governments, such as the government of South Africa which was itself notorious for its apartheid policies and its similar threat of acquiring nuclear capabilities. However the military junta’s most appalling practices were not well-known. Whether you were a newspaper editor, a university professor or a university student, a trade unionist, or simply a person of conscience, you could well disappear if you spoke out about the inhuman practices of the junta,” stated Riley at the award ceremony.

Indeed, the number of people tortured, murdered or “disappeared” during the reign of the dictatorship is estimated between ten and thirty thousand between 1976 and 1983. Meanwhile, the government of Canada was wholeheartedly supporting continued business with Argentina, including the export of nuclear technology, despite the Argentine government’s refusal to sign the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The picket line was joined by members of many local unions, including the Canadian Paperworkers, the United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. There were also members of other unions across the province, as well as church groups and members from the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Project Ploughshares and the Maritimes Energy Coalition.

As a result of the protest, 11 of the 17 political prisoners were released within days and three were sent into exile. Another of the prisoners identified by the NO CANDU campaign, union leader Alberto Piccinini, was released a year later. During a visit to Canada, he expressed his gratitude to a group of Canadian workers: “Unity is the unity of all of us; and it must go beyond national boundaries. I am very clear that I am free today because of the struggle first of the people in my country and second because of workers elsewhere – especially in this beautiful country.”

At the March 13th award ceremony, Saint John mayor Ivan Court spoke of the workers’ decision to respect the picket line on the morning of July 3rd, 1979: “People matter first and foremost… So when the longshoremen in this city in 1979 said to the boss ‘We’re not crossing the picket line. Life is more important than a paycheck,’ that’s what Saint John is all about…People were willing to say ‘no’, and ‘no’ did save lives,” said Court.

Barbara  Byers of the Canadian Labour Congress echoed Court’s sentiments: “They were ordinary people knowing that they were doing something to try and change the living conditions, the lives of people a long way away. But they were ordinary people taking extraordinary actions. They were ordinary people making history.”

Byers went on to draw connections to current political issues in Latin America, including the recent coup d’état in Honduras and the proposed Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement:

Today the widespread military dictatorships may be on the wane, but we now have a dictatorship of the free markets and free trade agreements. And the labour movement has been at the forefront of the resistance to that new kind of dictatorship going back to the fight against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement. We learned many lessons from those struggles and we are applying them to the current fight to oppose the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Colombia may not be ruled by a military dictatorship, but human rights violations taking place in that country are equally surreal. The dirty war there is being waged against trade unionists and leaders who dare to organize a union, lead a strike or oppose the government in any way.

Upon accepting the Orden de Mayo from Ambassador Bothamley, Pat Riley expressed his gratitude for the recognition of their action 31 years ago and reflected on the event.

“The story of the 1979 No CANDU for Argentina picket line was a story of immense courage, ingenuity and resolve. For the disappeared political prisoners. For the mothers of the disappeared. For the Group for the Defence of Civil Rights in Argentina. For the NO CANDU for Argentina committee and so many others. For the 1979 Port of Saint John picket line and demonstration. The determination to see justice done and to see the oppressive military junta in Argentina exposed to the world for the atrocious abuse perpetrated on its own people was a path for those involved,” stated Riley.

The 1979 event inspired folk singer Nancy White’s song “No Hot Cargo.” The ongoing theme of courage and solidarity on the picket line is heard though the chorus:

They said, “We don’t care about our wages
and we don’t care about the boss.

When your brothers and sisters are dying,
there’s lines you just don’t cross.”

No Hot Cargo for Argentina!
No Hot Cargo for Argentina!
No Hot Cargo for Argentina!

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