These Dockworkers Just Showed the Labor Movement How to Shut Down Fascists

Peter Cole August 29, 2017

ILWU Local 10 members gather to denounce fascism and white supremacy. (Courtesy of Ed Ferris, ILWU Local 10 President)

What role should the labor move­ment play in beat­ing back the resur­gence of fas­cism? Resis­tance, while a pow­er­ful con­cept, is far too vague. Local 10, the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area branch of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) — and per­haps the most rad­i­cal union in the Unit­ed States — demon­strates what can be done.

This past week, the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area — long a cen­ter of union­ism, social jus­tice move­ments and rad­i­cal­ism — took cen­ter stage. Patri­ot Prayer is a right-wing orga­ni­za­tion with a demon­strat­ed his­to­ry of incit­ing racist vio­lence, most obvi­ous­ly in Port­land, Ore., while iron­i­cal­ly assert­ing peace­ful inten­tions. The far-right group declared it would ral­ly in San Fran­cis­co on Saturday.

Local 10 took a lead role in orga­niz­ing counter-protests that con­tributed to the San Fran­cis­co event being can­celed the day ahead of its sched­uled event. The union’s role in this wave of pop­u­lar mobi­liza­tions demands consideration.

At its August 17 meet­ing, Local 10 passed a Motion to Stop the Fas­cists in San Fran­cis­co,” which laid out mem­bers’ oppo­si­tion to the ral­ly and inten­tion to orga­nize. This res­o­lu­tion enu­mer­at­ed the union’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, start­ing with Don­ald Trump’s white­wash­ing this vio­lent, dead­ly fas­cist and racist attack [in Char­lottesville] say­ing both sides are to blame,’ and his attack­ing anti-racists for oppos­ing Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues that hon­or slav­ery adds fuel to the fire of racist violence.”

The dock­work­ers called out Patri­ot Prayer for incit­ing vio­lence. “[F]ar from a mat­ter of free speech,’ the racist and fas­cist provo­ca­tions are a dead­ly men­ace, as shown in Port­land on May 26 when a Nazi mur­dered two men and almost killed a third for defend­ing two young African-Amer­i­can women he was men­ac­ing,” they declared. The union called for a protest against Patri­ot Prayer’s sched­uled ral­ly in San Francisco.

The motion end­ed with an invi­ta­tion to all unions and anti-racist and anti-fas­cist orga­ni­za­tions to join us defend­ing unions, racial minori­ties, immi­grants, LGBTQ peo­ple, women and all the oppressed.”

As Ed Fer­ris, Local 10 pres­i­dent and one of the lead orga­niz­ers suc­cinct­ly declared in a recent inter­view with Dr. Suzi Weiss­man on KPFK, A woman [Heather Hey­er] was killed by Nazis on Amer­i­can soil and that’s absolute­ly unacceptable.”

Local 10’s planned counter-march received wide pub­lic­i­ty in the Bay Area and across Cal­i­for­nia via the inter­net, mass media and social media. Thou­sands would like­ly have joined the anti-fas­cist demon­stra­tion, were it not for the rally’s can­cel­la­tion. While Local 10 was hard­ly the only Bay Area group to mobi­lize, they played a role in inspir­ing oth­ers to take action. As San Fran­cis­co Against Hate not­ed on Face­book, ILWU Local 10 has a long his­to­ry of fight­ing against racism” so many oth­er SF com­mu­ni­ty groups and indi­vid­u­als who stand against white suprema­cy, misog­y­ny and homo­pho­bia, will be march­ing from Longshoreman’s Hall to Crissy Field to protest.”

After its first ral­ly was foiled, Patri­ot Prayer attempt­ed a sec­ond at the city’s famed Alamo Park. How­ev­er, thou­sands of counter-pro­test­ers — includ­ing ILWU mem­bers and union elec­tri­cians and teach­ers — got to Alamo Park first and occu­pied it, over­whelm­ing what few fas­cists and white suprema­cists appeared. These pro­test­ers joined anoth­er large con­tin­gent in the city’s Mis­sion dis­trict, long a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood now suf­fer­ing from rapid gentrification.

On Sun­day, the focus shift­ed to the East Bay city of Berke­ley where far-right forces planned to gath­er. Yet, once again, anti-fas­cists out-orga­nized the right. Upwards of 5,000 peo­ple appeared, includ­ing — once more — Bay Area dock­work­ers and union teach­ers. Among ILWU mem­bers present was Howard Key­lor, a 90-year-old who led the anti-apartheid boy­cott that Local 10 con­duct­ed in 1984 in sol­i­dar­i­ty with South Africans.

Yet, dock­work­ers have not been immune to the ris­ing tide of hate. Ear­li­er this year, mul­ti­ple noos­es were found on the Oak­land water­front, which fol­lowed the dis­cov­ery of racist slurs spray paint­ed on port equip­ment. The African-Amer­i­can Long­shore Coali­tion, a cau­cus of black long­shore work­ers with­in the ILWU, has led the efforts to com­bat such racism. In late May, about one hun­dred work­ers stopped work to protest these racist provo­ca­tions. Der­rick Muham­mad, Local 10’s Sec­re­tary Trea­sur­er, com­ment­ed in late May: We believe it’s a bonafide health and safe­ty issue because of the his­to­ry behind the noose and what it means for black peo­ple in America.”

Instead of pro­tect­ing their work­ers, SSA Marine, the employ­er, respond­ed by fil­ing a com­plaint with the port arbi­tra­tor who ruled this stop­page ille­gal. The port’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor declared, The Port of Oak­land does not tol­er­ate big­otry or dis­crim­i­na­tion of any kind,” but offered no spe­cif­ic com­ment on the noos­es or the work stop­page. The Pacif­ic Mar­itime Asso­ci­a­tion, to which SSA belongs and which rep­re­sents West Coast ship­ping cor­po­ra­tions in deal­ings with the ILWU, declined to com­ment for this story.

The ILWU offers an exam­ple of a labor union being wide­ly and deeply involved in social jus­tice beyond its own work­places. It boy­cotted ships load­ing mate­r­i­al for fas­cist and racist regimes in Japan in the 1930s, Chile in the 1970s, and South Africa in the 1980s. It stood as one of the few orga­ni­za­tions to con­demn the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. It active­ly fought racism in its own work­places, cities and nation. The ILWU shut down all West Coast ports, on May Day of 2008 to protest the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion day, 90 per­cent of rank-and-file mem­bers in Local 10 refused to report for work.

In its anti-fas­cist state­ment, the ILWU cit­ed its own proud his­to­ry of stand­ing up against racism, fas­cism and big­otry and using our union pow­er to do so; on May Day 2015 we shut down Bay Area ports and marched fol­lowed by thou­sands to Oscar Grant Plaza demand­ing an end to police ter­ror against African Amer­i­cans and others.”

The labor move­ment has been great­ly weak­ened by decades of anti-union­ism, but the ILWU and Local 10 remain unbowed. Oth­er unions should fol­low their lead. And, for the 89 per­cent of Amer­i­can work­ers not in unions, they must be remind­ed that indi­vid­ual acts of resis­tance — while noble — are nowhere as effec­tive as col­lec­tive action. Sad­ly, there will be many more oppor­tu­ni­ties to act.

Peter Cole is a Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and Research Asso­ciate in the Soci­ety, Work and Devel­op­ment Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa. He is the author of Wob­blies on the Water­front: Inter­ra­cial Union­ism in Pro­gres­sive Era Philadel­phia and the award-win­ning Dock­work­er Pow­er: Race and Activism in Dur­ban and the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-direc­tor of the Chica­go Race Riot of 1919 Com­mem­o­ra­tion Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.
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