Fighting Against Racism—And For a Better Paycheck—On the Docks

Shaun Richman April 3, 2019

Hundreds of striking truck drivers belonging to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) march through the streets to hand over a memorandum to the Road Freight Bargaining Council, on October 4, 2012, in Parow, Cape Town, South Africa. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/GettyImages)

Dock­work­ers have pow­er.” With that sim­ple state­ment, West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor and In These Times con­trib­u­tor Peter Cole kicks off his com­pelling new his­to­ry, Dock­work­er Pow­er: Race and Activism in Dur­ban and the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area (Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press).

The sto­ry of the west coast Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), its leg­endary founder Har­ry Bridges, and the 1934 San Fran­cis­co gen­er­al strike he led is broad­ly famil­iar to Amer­i­cans who enjoy roman­tic sto­ries of der­ring do from the labor movement’s past. Less famil­iar may be the union’s strug­gle for anti-racist hir­ing and lay­off poli­cies on the docks, and its cru­cial ally­ship in var­i­ous civ­il rights struggles.

Cole pairs their his­to­ry with that of black South African dock­er orga­niz­ing that pre­saged the strug­gle against apartheid by decades, and cre­at­ed an ear­ly and durable insti­tu­tion­al strong­hold of black pow­er in South Africa.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two unions don’t end with the strug­gle for their black mem­bers’ civ­il rights. Half a world away, the unions also strug­gled to main­tain job con­trol in a sys­tem of casu­al employ­ment, grap­pled with job-killing con­tainer­iza­tion and flexed their pow­er at the choke points of the glob­al econ­o­my to extend sol­i­dar­i­ty to work­ers’ free­dom strug­gles around the world.

Although rarely in direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion with each oth­er, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the Apartheid era, the unions had remark­ably sim­i­lar approach­es to the issues that vexed them. Cole’s book is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the rel­a­tive­ly thin field of glob­al union comparisons.

Work­ers of the world (trade)

By the nature of their work, dock­work­ers of all coun­tries have long been more cos­mopoli­tan than many com­rades in their respec­tive nation­al labor move­ments. They are exposed to new ideas and far-away strug­gles. Cole’s book stress­es how these two region­al work­ers’ move­ments meld­ed their orga­niz­ing for a bet­ter pay­check with the strug­gle against racism in their broad­er soci­eties and how — keen­ly aware of their lever­age in the fast-mov­ing glob­al econ­o­my — they went on to exer­cise transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty at these ports of trade.

One of the sub­stan­tial vic­to­ries of the 1934 Bay Area strike was the replace­ment of the shape-up system­ — the infor­mal hus­tle for day labor work — with a union-oper­at­ed hir­ing hall that worked to racial­ly inte­grate the work­force. African-Amer­i­cans from south­ern states joined the ranks en masse dur­ing World War II and were wel­comed into union membership.

But the end of the war brought a seri­ous reduc­tion in work on the docks. Union lead­er­ship rec­og­nized that if mem­ber­ship ranks with­in the hir­ing hall were reduced on a last in, first out” basis, the new­er black long­shore­men would dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly feel the effects of the lay­offs — an action that would leave scars with­in the port work­force for gen­er­a­tions. In an act of racial sol­i­dar­i­ty that stands out in the pre-civ­il-rights era, the Bay Area locals of the ILWU decid­ed instead to share the lack of work. All exist­ing mem­bers stayed in the union, and worked few­er shifts until busi­ness picked back up.

As a racial­ly inte­grat­ed union with a large black mem­ber­ship, the ILWU nat­u­ral­ly played a lead­ing role in con­nect­ing the labor and civ­il rights move­ments. The Bay Area locals were key orga­niz­ers of a local 1963 civ­il rights demon­stra­tion, in addi­tion to orga­niz­ing one of the far­thest-trav­el­ing con­tin­gents to that year’s famous March on Wash­ing­ton. They formed the mem­ber­ship back­bone of the local chap­ters of the NAACP and Urban League. They pressed suc­cess­ful­ly for fair employ­ment and hous­ing laws in Oak­land, and the union used its pen­sion fund to build racial­ly-inte­grat­ed coop­er­a­tive hous­ing in the rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing Fill­more neigh­bor­hood in San Francisco.

As Cole notes, the excep­tion­al role of the ILWU in many left-wing strug­gles is often glanc­ing­ly men­tioned in his­tor­i­cal accounts of the post­war labor move­ment. This book is the first time all of these exam­ples and more have been brought togeth­er in a com­pre­hen­sive narrative.

Dur­ban dock­ers have enjoyed far less atten­tion from Amer­i­can schol­ars. Their his­to­ry of labor mil­i­tan­cy dates back to the 1950s, although the apartheid state did not extend for­mal union recog­ni­tion to indus­tries that employed black work­ers until the 1980s. The union they formed — today called the South African Trans­port and Allied Work­ers Union (SATAWU) — made sub­stan­tial gains in pen­sions, health and safe­ty — and won for work­ers a guar­an­teed min­i­mum wage regard­less of the avail­abil­i­ty of work. It also affil­i­at­ed with the Con­gress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a junior part­ner with the African Nation­al Con­gress (ANC) in both the suc­cess­ful final dri­ve to end white minor­i­ty rule and in the post-Apartheid gov­ern­ment since 1994.

Inter­est­ing­ly, the ILWU’s com­mit­ment to civ­il rights extend­ed to inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty. As ear­ly as 1962, Bay Area long­shore­men occa­sion­al­ly refused to unload South African car­go in protest of Apartheid. In 1984, union mem­bers refused to unload South African car­go off of an old­er non-con­tainer­ized ship, the Nedl­loyd Kim­ber­ly, which sat docked at San Francisco’s Pier 80 for 11 days. The protest attract­ed the atten­tion of com­mu­ni­ty activists who joined dai­ly ral­lies out­side the port and even­tu­al­ly brought the ongo­ing work anti-apartheid boy­cotts to Bay Area col­leges and com­mu­ni­ty groups.

In more recent years, Bay Area long­shore­men have refused to unload ships car­ry­ing Israeli car­go in 2010 and again in 2014, dur­ing peri­ods of active mil­i­tary attacks against Palestinians.

Dur­ban dock­ers, too, have notably refused to unload ships under con­tract with Israeli cor­po­ra­tions in protest of what they call — and they have some license to say this — an apartheid régime.” And their sol­i­dar­i­ty activism doesn’t end there. In 2008, they pre­vent­ed a blood­bath by turn­ing away a Chi­nese ship­ment of arma­ments that the embat­tled pres­i­dent of neigh­bor­ing Zim­bab­we, Robert Mugabe, had ordered in a last-ditch effort to prop up his régime.

Main­tain­ing work­er pow­er in the face of eco­nom­ic change

Both dock work­forces began their nonunion eras essen­tial­ly as on-call temps. In addi­tion to racial­ly inte­grat­ing the docks, the ILWU-oper­at­ed hir­ing hall also freed work­ers from bribery and the black­list and allowed them to keep the best part of casu­al employ­ment — only show­ing up for work when they felt like it and need­ed the paycheck.

The non-employ­ee sta­tus of Dur­ban dock­ers, on the oth­er hand, was a source of union pow­er and legal pro­tec­tion, and made de-casu­al­iza­tion the employ­ers’ strat­e­gy to reign in the pow­er of the unions. The Apartheid sys­tem of labor rela­tions basi­cal­ly exempt­ed indus­tries that employed black work­ers from statu­to­ry col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, while mak­ing strikes ille­gal. But if work­ers fin­ish their shift with no promise or guar­an­tee of more work the next day and — col­lec­tive­ly and entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal­ly — don’t both­er show­ing up in the morn­ing to see if there’s more work avail­able until the wages get bet­ter, is that legal­ly-speak­ing an ille­gal” strike?

By defy­ing white boss pow­er in work stop­pages, the Dur­ban dock­ers became pio­neers in the African free­dom strug­gle. A 1954 Dur­ban dock­er strike result­ed in wage con­ces­sions, but also the ter­mi­na­tion and black­list­ing of strike lead­ers. Oth­er strikes fol­lowed, but the work­ers were care­ful to not elect any for­mal lead­er­ship. Cole argues that the dock­ers sparked a strike wave in oth­er indus­tries in the port city in 1973. Those Dur­ban strikes are wide­ly acknowl­edged as a turn­ing point in the strug­gle against Apartheid.

White author­i­ties retal­i­at­ed by mak­ing the dock­ers reg­u­lar hourly employ­ees, which sta­bi­lized the work­ers’ incomes but legal­ly restrict­ed their abil­i­ty to strike. (The Apartheid state did move to for­mal­ly rec­og­nize unions of black work­ers by the end of the decade, and the post-Apartheid con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects the right to strike.)

Anoth­er eco­nom­ic change that all the world’s dock work­ers had to con­tend with was con­tainer­iza­tion. The stan­dard­ized con­tain­ers — 40 or 20 feet long — that tran­si­tion neat­ly from train to truck to boat (and back again) have rev­o­lu­tion­ized world trade. Filled with any­thing from dia­pers to tele­vi­sions to just about any cheap plas­tic thing slapped with a Made in (fill in the blank)” label, they rock­et prod­ucts around the world in the glob­al logis­tics sup­ply chain.

Amazon’s two-day ship­ping pro­gram would be large­ly impos­si­ble with­out them. Entire fleets of boats have been replaced to accom­mo­date the con­tain­ers. Har­bors have been dredged, ports relo­cat­ed and shore­lines reshaped.

Of course, they’re job killers. Machines do much of the heavy lift­ing that used to require full crews of workers.

Con­tainer­iza­tion was imposed on Dur­ban dock­ers in 1977, years before they gained for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. In the decade before con­tain­er ships first appeared at the Dur­ban docks, the work­force peaked at 3,500 work­ers. By the time automa­tion was ful­ly imple­ment­ed in the mid-1980s only 1,200 work­ers remained.

In the Bay Area, Har­ry Bridges had the unique com­bi­na­tion of street cred, shop-floor pow­er and bat­tle fatigue to make an accom­mo­da­tion with the ship­ping mag­nates. Rather than engage in dubi­ous bat­tle to pre­serve back-break­ing jobs that were rapid­ly becom­ing unnec­es­sary, Bridges struck deals in 1960 and 1966 that guar­an­teed all exist­ing long­shore­men wages even if there was no work. The slim­mer crews who would work with the machines to remote con­trol the giant steel box­es on and off the boats were promised a greater share of the profits.

When rank-and-fil­ers felt that those finan­cial gains did not make up for the loss of job con­trol they had pre­vi­ous­ly enjoyed, they went on strike over Bridges’ objec­tions dur­ing the win­ter of 1971 to 1972. Stung, the old Com­mu­nist mil­i­tant lent no per­son­al sup­port to the strike.

Still, the orga­nized work­ers who remained employed in the Bay Area and at the world’s ports enjoy a posi­tion of tremen­dous lever­age with­in glob­al­ized capitalism.

Stran­gling the choke­points of glob­al capital

There is an under­stand­able ten­den­cy among those of us who care deeply about restor­ing the pow­er of unions to grasp for break­through strate­gies and inspir­ing flare-ups of work­er mil­i­tan­cy like the recent teach­ers strikes and dig­i­tal news­room orga­niz­ing wins. In con­trast, trade union­ists who instead focus on port work­ers and truck dri­vers can seem hope­less­ly quaint and back­wards-look­ing. Mean­while, glob­al cap­i­tal­ism is still at its root about mak­ing and sell­ing prod­ucts in the glob­al mar­ket­place. Work­ers who have a hand in how quick­ly those prod­ucts move — if they move at all — retain the capac­i­ty for tremen­dous power.

Anoth­er book that takes stock of the poten­tial pow­er of work­ers at strate­gic loca­tions in the glob­al sup­ply chain is Choke Points (Plu­to), a new col­lec­tion of essays edit­ed by Jake Alima­homed-Wil­son and Immanuel Ness. Peter Cole is here as well doc­u­ment­ing the Dur­ban dock work­ers’ sol­i­dar­i­ty actions on behalf of oth­er African strug­gles for free­dom from colonialism.

Else­where, Peter Olney, for­mer orga­niz­ing direc­tor of the ILWU, makes a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly mas­ter­ful con­tri­bu­tion on the evolv­ing nature of the glob­al econ­o­my and the west coast longshoremen’s role in it. He writes, the future for pow­er­ful dock­work­ers lies in con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing them­selves as logis­tics work­ers.” By this he means extend­ing long­shore orga­niz­ing and sol­i­dar­i­ty fur­ther inland to the ware­hous­es and truck­ing com­pa­nies that com­bine to form the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem of so-called free trade. The threat of wag­ing strikes that can roll from boat to truck to ware­house would be an obvi­ous point of leverage.

She­heryar Kaoosji con­tributes a vital and edu­ca­tion­al post-mortem assess­ment of one such effort, the com­pre­hen­sive cam­paign to orga­nize the ware­house work­ers and truck dri­vers a decade ago in the twin ports of Los Ange­les and Long Beach. Despite being resourced with strate­gic researchers and expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, and sup­port­ed by moti­vat­ed com­mu­ni­ty part­ners,” this sig­na­ture effort of Change-to-Win fal­tered with the chang­ing polit­i­cal winds in Wash­ing­ton and the rival labor fed­er­a­tions and the inabil­i­ty to get work­ers in dif­fer­ent parts of the logis­tics chain to see their own com­mon cause.

Although the strate­gic loca­tion and poten­tial pow­er of the peo­ple who work at these choke points is obvi­ous to out­side agi­ta­tors, the ten­den­cy of work­ers to focus on the boss who gets in their face and the name that signs their pay­check instead is a peren­ni­al obsta­cle to the untapped pow­er of sol­i­dar­i­ty. Look­ing at labor bat­tles in Turkey, con­trib­u­tors Çağatay Edgü­can Şahin and Pekin Bengisu Tepe describe the prob­lem as a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry work­ing class” going up against the Age of Indus­try 4.0’s capital.”

Some of the oth­er essays in the vol­ume are thick with aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon that make them less acces­si­ble to the lay­man. It’s regret­table, because if you can parse the lan­guage Choke Points is a blue­print for revolution.

The best con­tri­bu­tion both of these books could make is to help focus the new gen­er­a­tion of young social­ists who are eager to help rebuild the labor move­ment as rank-and-file orga­niz­ers on where our pow­er real­ly lies. I mean no dis­re­spect to the cru­cial work of jour­nal­ists and teach­ers, but glob­al cap­i­tal­ism can grind to a halt when the ships don’t sail on time.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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