No Hot Cargo for Argentina

By: George Vair

In the early morning hours of 3 July 1979, a thick fog lay over the Saint John waterfront. But this was no deterrent to the protesters who were quietly beginning to gather on the west side of the harbour next to the gates of the container terminal. As the foghorn on Partridge Island sounded in the distance, people were nervously removing picket signs and leaflets from the trunk of their cars. Others, more confident, were moving towards the gates, showing their familiarity at the thought of manning a picket line—it was just 6:30 a.m.

Over two months of preparations had gone into organizing this event, but one question remained unanswered, the primary question, as it were: Would the longshoremen honour the picket line? Would they be willing to give up a day’s pay and risk discipline from their employer and a possible court injunction?

The main organizer of this gathering, the Saint John District Labour Council, led by Larry Hanley and Barb Hunter, were at the gates early. Soon Barry Hould, from the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers, would arrive with a group of trade unionists from Moncton. Gil Theriault, of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, showed up with a carload of people from Richibucto. Jean-Claude Basque and Carlos Yuste, from the South East Unemployment Committee, were there, as was Keay Halstead, representing Ten Days for World Development, and Ann Breault, of the Catholic Women’s league.

Members of the United Auto Workers, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Canadian Paperworkers Union, and Canadian Union of Public Employees arrived to swell the ranks of those setting up picket lines around the gates of Pier II. That was where the ship Entre RiosII laid dockside, waiting to be loaded with 120 million dollars worth of heavy water for a nuclear reactor in Argentina. Other supporting groups would soon join them, including the Maritime Energy Coalition, the Voice of Women, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Project Ploughshares, various Church groups and, even, a few members of the Marxist-Leninist League.

The media were also out in full force. There was a reporter from the Toronto Star, a freelancer for the Globe and Mail, CBC-TV and Radio, CTV, and a reporter from the French CBC- Radio Canada.

Three years earlier, in March of 1976, the Argentine military had charged the presidential palace and overthrew the corrupt, but democratically elected, government of Isabel Peron. What followed under the leadership of General, Jorge Rafel Videla, was an era of barbarism that equalled the worst of other Latin American regimes that ruled by coercion, torture and murder. Thousands of people, including, doctors, teachers, union leaders, priests, nuns, a bishop, newspaper editors, reporters and social workers, would be kidnapped, tortured obscenely and assassinated by squads of plain clothes security police or soldiers, operating on the orders, or the blessings, of the ruling junta.

The figures spoke for themselves: By 1979, human rights groups were reporting 15,000 individuals had disappeared, 10,000 political prisoners languished in jail—seventy percent of whom were trade unionists—and over 6000 people had been murdered. The military government justified these massacres by calling all its victims terrorists.

In addition, Argentina had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1) or the Tlatelolco Treaty. (2) In spite of Argentina’s refusal to finalize these treaties and their deplorable record on human rights, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) was proceeding with the sale of a Candu nuclear reactor. The head of the AECL, Ross Campbell, was quoted as saying, “Business is business and human rights are human rights, and in any event, if Canada pulled out of the deal the sale would only go to West Germany.” The Federal Government took a similar stand, with External Affairs Minister, Donald Jamieson, refusing to link trade issues with human rights.

Many other Canadians saw things differently. These Canadians had two major concerns, one being that Canada should not have a “business as usual” trade relationship with such a brutal regime and, secondly, Canada should not be sending nuclear technology to a right-wing military government, a government that refused to sign international treaties aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. These concerns led to a coalition of labour, civil rights, peace, and other groups, joining together to form the “No Candu for Argentina Committee.” The initial supporters of this committee included: The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), The Group for the Defence of Civil Rights in Argentina (GDCRA), The Latin American Working Group (LAWG), The United Auto Workers (UAW), The Voice of Women (VOW), Project Ploughshares, The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and The United Electrical Workers (UE).

This Committee worked tirelessly to educate the public and to convince the government they should cancel the sale of nuclear technology to Argentina. Their representations to government, however, fell on deaf ears. In September of 1978, they discovered the shipment of the last major component of the Candu package would occur in the spring or early summer of 1979. Destined for Cordoba, Argentina, were 120 million dollars worth of heavy water. The committee decided a more radical approach was necessary. Having concluded some tangible action had to be taken, they decided on an action that would bring home to the Canadian government the outrage that most Canadians felt about the sale of the Candu reactor, an action that would allow the peoples of Canada to act in solidarity with the people of Argentina and, hopefully, an action that would convince the Canadian government to suspend the sale of the Candu nuclear reactor. It was decided to plan an action that would disrupt the transport of the heavy water.

In mid-February, the investigation began in earnest. Many questions had to be answered: What shipping line would transport the heavy water? Where would be the port of exit? When would the loading occur? What unions would be involved in the shipping and loading? And what would the implications of the action be?

Through teamwork, guesswork and determination, the committee was able to conclude the heavy water would most likely be shipped through the port of Saint John, New Brunswick. Having discovered the port of exit, the committee contacted Larry Hanley, president of the Saint John District Labour Council. Hanley was sympathetic and agreed to meet with the No Candu for Argentina Committee in early May, when he would be in Toronto on other business.

Following the Toronto meeting, Larry Hanley arranged to have Enrique Tabak, a member of the Committee, speak at the New Brunswick Federation of Labour Convention, scheduled for mid-May in Moncton. Addressing the convention on May 15th, Enrique spoke about the trade union suppression in Argentina, the total lack of human rights and the goals of the No Candu for Argentina Committee. He received a standing ovation and the convention delegates passed a resolution stating the sale of nuclear technology to the Argentine government should be suspended. Enrique Tabak returned to Toronto with assurance the unions in New Brunswick supported the potential action and the Saint John District Labour Council was prepared to take it on.

By mid May the committee knew the heavy water would come from Chalk River, Ontario, and they were now certain it would exit via Saint John. The committee contacted the Maritime Energy Coalition in Saint John. They were eager to get involved and began alerting church and environmental groups. The activity in Saint John now matched that of the activity in Toronto, as a coalition of labour, church and environment groups were equally committed to delaying the shipment of heavy water. But the crucial question was: What vessel would carry the containers? It was, also, impossible to determine the exact day the liner would dock in Saint John. Every Thursday the Globe and Mail published incoming and outgoing dates for the Argentine lines and the Saint John papers carried information on the traffic arriving and leaving the Saint John port. The committee, however, soon learned the only thing certain was these dates were often wrong. From the end of May onwards, committee members were prepared to leave Toronto for Saint John on a moment’s notice.

Tension escalated when it was discovered the heavy water containers were in Saint John. On 8 June Committee member, Don Lee, left for Saint John. The Saint John District Labour Council had information the containers could possibly be loaded on a liner called Rio Esquel. When further information assured this was not the case, Don Lee returned to Toronto. The next vessel from Argentina due to arrive in Saint John was the Entre RiosII. Further enquires revealed all the heavy water containers were now at dockside and the Entre RiosII would be the vessel transporting them. Daily contact was maintained between Saint John and the Committee in Toronto. Everyone was on edge. Just when they thought they knew when the liner would be arriving, it would be delayed. Finally, on 26 June, it was learned the expected date of arrival for the Entre RiosII was Sunday, 1 July.

On Thursday, 28 June, Linda Grobovsky, a member of the Toronto No Candu for Argentina Committee, prepared to leave for Saint John in order to assist Larry Hanley, John Sheehan and Dana Silk with any last minute preparations. The Ontario Federation of Labour had circulated literature to the labour movement across Canada, apprising them of what was to occur and asking them to send telegrams of support when the event took place. As Linda prepared to leave for Saint John the telephone rang. It was the Canadian Press in Ottawa. They had received a press release of support from one of the unions. Ginny Galt of C.P. wanted to know what exactly was happening and if Linda knew anything about Candu reactors and Argentina. Linda contacted committee members Don Lee, Mercedes Bonarino and Enrique Tabak. What would the implications of an early press release be? What would happen if Atomic Energy of Canada were alerted? Ginny Galt had told Linda the release had “gone across the wire” and there was no way to impede its appearance in newspapers or on the radio. The union had apparently been concerned about being late in its message of support, but what had caused a major anxiety attack amidst the Committee in Toronto, would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Publicity about the event began on 28 June and lasted for the next two weeks.

Linda arrived in Saint John on Thursday afternoon and was met by Dana Silk and John Sheehan of the Maritime Energy Coalition. Dana Silk was also the president of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. Larry Hanley was out of town and the contact for the labour council was Barb Hunter, the council secretary. Linda spent Friday with Barb Hunter. Barb helped Linda become oriented to Saint John and the unions in the city. The response Linda received was tremendously friendly and enthusiastic. Barb took Linda for a trip around the port and the container terminal. On Saturday Larry Hanley returned to Saint John and discovered the vessel was now scheduled to arrive on Monday. Linda contacted Enrique Tabak in Toronto and brought him up to date on the situation. Enrique immediately packed his bags and arrived in the city Sunday evening.

On Monday, Enrique, Linda, Larry, Barb and Dana strategize at the union office. A flurry of activity was taking place. Everyone was wearing the “Hot Cargo” buttons. Press kits were prepared for distribution. Phone calls were being made to the various supporting groups, advising them that D-day had arrived. As plans for the next day were being finalized at the union office, the vessel Entre RiosII quietly slipped into the Saint John harbour and tied up at Pier II. In the late afternoon Larry took Linda and Enrique to see the liner. Reporters were phoning to get information and supporters were phoning to offer encouragement. The tension was escalating, but there was nothing left to do—except wait.

After spending a long restless night, Linda and Enrique awoke to the sound of the foghorn on Partridge Island. It was Tuesday, 3 July, in less than an hour the longshoremen were scheduled to begin loading the heavy water onboard the Entre RiosII. The big question still remained, the primary question, as it were: Would the longshoremen honour the picket line? The suspense would soon be over; they would soon have their answer.

The adrenalin ran high as the picketers noticed the first group of longshoremen arriving for work. Larry Hanley, Barry Hould, Enrique Tabak and Linda Grobovsky immediately dispersed into the crowd. They proceeded to explain the human rights abuses, the oppression of the trade unions and the implications of selling nuclear technology to a right-wing military Junta, like the one in Argentina. The longshoremen responded by asking for the bright yellow buttons the picketers were wearing and agreed not to cross the picket line. A delegation of picketers moved to cover the other two gates as some longshoremen were heading for the other terminals. These picketers were greeted with the same success. The Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks also refused to cross the picket line. The final result was that the total port of Saint John was shut down.

While the initial reason for not crossing the picket line was due to their respect for the picket line itself—Saint John longshoremen have a long history of respecting picket lines—their final decision not to report for work was based on their support for the workers of Argentina. Many of them took stickers bearing the “Hot Cargo” logo, in order to place them on containers the next day. Others asked for leaflets, wanting to know more about the Argentine regime.

At 10 a.m. a news conference was held at the union office. Twelve journalists were involved in a question and answer session with Larry Hanley, Dana Silk and Linda Grobovsky. Telegrams of support were arriving from all corners of Canada and copies were provided to the media. Dana Silk told the news conference, “The military government there has no respect for any civil rights, who knows what they’ll do with nuclear weapons?” “We want the Canadian government to show some responsibility,” said Larry Hanley, and added “We think we have an ally in the External Affairs Minister, Flora MacDonald, because a lot of the things she was saying before the election are the same things we are saying.” Linda Grobovsky spoke of the human rights abuses, saying, “At least 15,000 people have disappeared, some of them into the sea with severed heads. There are no lawyers for those in prison and a lawyer trying to help would be taking his life into his own hands.” They provided the reporters with a copy of the demands being made to the Canadian and Argentine governments. (3) The events that morning were reported in the media across Canada and beyond, including some newspapers in Latin America. The events would also be carried on CBC-TV and Radio, and CTV.

The International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 273, had said longshoremen would be ordered to report for work at 1 p.m. The Union Business Agent, insisted the men return to work in the afternoon and cross the picket line. The ILA had a contract with the Maritime Employers Association (MEA), which provided for penalties—like fines or suspensions for work stoppages. Following the news conference, everyone returned to the picket line. The morning fog had burned off and the day had become warm and sunny as the 1 p.m. shift of longshoremen reported for work. In spite of the instructions from the Business Agent, these longshoremen were no more willing to cross the picket line than those on the morning shift. The afternoon longshoremen were just as supportive of Argentine workers as their morning counterparts. The port would remain shut down.

While the picketers were ecstatic over the refusal of the 1 p.m. shift to cross their picket line, Douglas Bettle, the MEA’s, manager, was furious. Pointing to several workers outside the gate, he said, “They’re always looking for an excuse to stop work. They are too fat. They’ll walk off every chance they get. This work stoppage is bad for the port. It’s those longshoremen that have been driving ships away from Saint John to Montreal. It affects the port every time there’s a work stoppage.” (4) Bettle didn’t seem able to comprehend or appreciate that the longshoremen had some principles and their actions were taken in support of the workers in Argentina.

Robert Elkin, the ship’s agent for the Entre RiosII, said the ship’s delay would cost someone between $10,000 and $15,000, but he was not sure who would get the bill. Like Bettle, Elkin didn’t seem to appreciate what was really going on, telling reporters, “The demonstration was the work of organizers from Ontario and members of Marxist-Leninist groups.” (5) On the other hand, Longshoreman Jimmy Orr, blamed the port shutdown on the National Harbour Board. “If the demonstrators were allowed to go through the gates and picket the Entre RiosII, and tie up Pier II, the port would not have been shut down, but the Harbour Board won’t let them on the property, so it’s their fault,” said Orr. (6) Jimmy Orr then invited some of the protesters back to his apartment, where he literally wined and dined them.

Larry Hanley received word the MEA were holding an emergency meeting. They expected the employers would be working on getting a court injunction, and they heard rumours the heavy water had been put under armed guard. As they had achieved their goal of delaying the Entre RiosII and the loading of the heavy water, it was decided to greet the evening workers with signs of thanks and allow them to go to work. At 7 p.m., however, there were no longshoremen reporting for work. Apparently, the MEA and the union had decided there was no point in ordering the men out, as long as a picket line remained at the gates. The day was long, but had been full of optimism, joy, and a spirit of total commitment. Telegrams and calls of support continued to arrive from across the country. When it was clear that no longshoremen were reporting for the 7 p.m. shift, everyone returned to the union office where they joined in a Quaker prayer circle, to give thanks.

The protest in Saint John had been an enormous success, but it did not end there. The following morning Enrique Tabak left the port city for Ottawa. There he joined a delegation preparing for a meeting with the new Conservative External Affairs Minister, Flora MacDonald. The meeting had been pre-arranged, but it was timely, coming on the heels of the protest in Saint John. In addition to Enrique Tabak, the delegation consisted of: John Foster, of the United Church of Canada; John Simonds, assistant to the president of the Canadian Labour Congress; Donald Lee of the Ontario Federation of Labour; Douglas Glenn, of the United Auto Workers; Gary Steeves, of the Canadian Union of Public Employees; and Joseph Hanafin, of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. At 1 p.m. they met in the offices of the International Association of Machinists, where they discussed the events of the previous day and prepared for their meeting with the External Affairs Minister.

When Flora MacDonald was appointed External Affairs Minister, she had said that her department was determined to take a stronger international position on human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. While a member of the opposition she was quoted as saying, “There should be no sales, no further exports until the international community has developed the most stringent measure possible to prevent use of reactor fuel in the manufacture of weapons.” She had, also, told top External Affairs officials to read her speeches while she was in opposition. Unfortunately, as the coalition would discover, the officials at External Affairs had “won the day.”

Donning their bright yellow “Hot Cargo” buttons, the delegation arrived outside Ms. MacDonald’s office, where they were greeted by a swarm of journalists. Following statements to the media, the coalition entered the office of the External Affairs Minister. Don Lee told the Minister her government must honour its pre-election commitments and statements. The delegation told her very strong measures must be taken, that the government must not continue the sale of nuclear technology to countries that have failed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. She was given a clear message this was just the beginning and told about the telegram received from Vancouver. (7) Finally, she was presented with the same demands made by the protesters in Saint John the previous day.

The Minister told the group that she felt it was good to see so much concern. Nevertheless, she felt business was pears and human rights were apples and the two were being inappropriately mixed together. Her final response was that the issue would have to be dealt with by Cabinet. However, it has now become clear that there was a split in the Cabinet, with Ms. MacDonald pushing for the government to consider human rights when dealing with the Argentina regime, while Trade Minister Michael Wilson insisted on a business as usual approach.

Doug Glenn and Gary Steeves met with a representative from the Argentine Embassy and made the same demands. They were told democracy would be restored in Argentina in ten years. This caused everyone to wonder; who would be left to enjoy it? Although the representations to the two governments did not get the commitments the coalition had hoped for, very positive actions did followed.

On 5 July, Lorne Waldman, a lawyer working with the Emergency Committee for Argentine Political Prisoners and Refugees, received word that a prisoner the committee had campaigned for, had received a visa to come to Canada. On 13 July, the coalition received word from the Argentina Embassy concerning the sixteen trade unionists the coalition had demanded be released from prison.

Set free were: Roberto Garcia, Roberto Digon, Raul Ravitti, Demetrio Lorenzo, Rnrique Mico, Jose Castillo, Rodolfo Acuna, Adolfo Curti, Dante Manzano, Benito Bernachea, and Jose Rodriguez.

Sent into exile were: Hugo Juarez, Orlando Karlem and Alfredo Jarma.

Sentenced to prison by judicial order were: Alberto Piccinini and Carlo Gerzey

There was no information provided as to the whereabouts of Thelma Jara de Cabezas.

The letter from the Argentina Embassy, signed by its first secretary Alfredo V. Chiaradia, stated: “We would very much appreciate it if you could give this news the widest possible diffusion among your members and other interested persons.” Faced with the large amount of negative publicity and the threat of further disruptions, the Canadian and Argentine governments had decided some concessions were necessary. The release of the fourteen prisoners was a direct result of the 3 July protest in Saint John. The Saint John longshoremen had defied the orders of their employer and their union, and had given up a day’s pay ($90.00) to obtain the release of their Argentine brothers. The event was described as “the single most dramatic example of Canadian trade union solidarity with workers in the Third World.” (8) It was a true act of International Union Solidarity.

The No Candu for Argentina Committee presented the Saint John District Labour Council with a painting of the occasion. The painting depicted picketers at the Saint John Port, with the word “SOLIDARIY” printed at the bottom. The painting now hangs in the Frank and Ella Hatheway Labour Exhibit Center. And Canadian folk singer, Nancy White, wrote a song about the event:

The morning fog rolled in
to the port of old Saint John
and the ship from Argentina rolled in too.
Come to pick up some heavy water
to keep the Junta ticking,
but for one long day that cargo couldn’t get through.
Because a picket line was forming at the harbour gate
with a message for two governments that couldn’t wait
and the longshoremen who came to work to start there shift at nine
not one crossed that picket line,


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!

Well, they’d heard that in Argentina
the unions had been crippled,
no right to strike and their soldiers in control.
And leaders like Piccinini
are locked away in prison,
and each day the torture chambers take their toll.
And the government of Canada just shuts its eyes,
and says, “There’s business deals we’ve got to finalize.
There’s a market for reactors and we long to see it grow.”
But for one long day the Saint John people said, “No!”


Well, a list of 17 prisoners
was sent to Buenos Aires,
with demands for their release immediately.
And it looked like Argentina
needed heavy water badly
cause three days passed and seven were set free.
And the fishermen and the railway clerks, who walked that picket line
should have our heartfelt thanks for giving Ottawa the sign
that although our glorious leaders may be morally thread-bear
some workers in this country really care,


Source: Nancy White. Recorded from Sort of Political (1980)

The events of July 3, 1979 have not been forgotten in Argentina. On March 13, 2010 the Argentine Ambassador to Canada, Arturo Guillermo Bothamley, travelled to Saint John to present the Order of Mayo (The countries highest honour for citizens of other countries) to the Saint John longshoremen, for their support of Argentina workers in 1979. Visit website and click on “Hot Cargo.”

George Vair is a former representative with the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, Local 1065 and a former President of the Saint John District Labour Council and a former Vice-president of the New Brunswick of Labour. He has written a number of articles on the history of the labour movement in Saint John and is the author of one book entitled “The Struggle Against Wage Controls.” He is now retired and living in Saint John.

  1.  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was created in 1970 to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
  2.  The Tatelolco Treaty was a treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons in Latin America.
    1.  That the sale of nuclear technology to Argentina be suspended until such time as human and trade union rights are restored and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed
    2. That the Argentine government acknowledge the whereabouts of Thelma Jara de Cabezas and ensure her freedom. (Thelma Jara de Cabezas was secretary to the commission of relatives of the disappeared and political prisoners. She had disappeared on 2 May 1979.)
    3. That the Argentine government free sixteen imprisoned trade unionists and allow them to immigrate to Canada.
    4. That the Canadian government fulfill its commitment to accept one hundred political prisoners from Argentina as quickly as possible.
  3.  Saint John Telegraph Journal, 4 July 1979
  4.  Ibid.
  5.  Ibid.
  6.  The committee had received a telegram from the longshoremen’s union in Vancouver, stating they would refuse to load ships designated for Argentina.
  7.  New International 117, November 1982