Dockworkers Show Us How Unions Can Be a Powerful Force Against Racism

Peter Cole May 23, 2019

The Local 10 Drill Team, 1972. Courtesy of Captain Josh Williams and ILWU Archives.

This arti­cle is adapt­ed from Dock­work­er Pow­er: Race and Activism in Dur­ban and the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. Used with the per­mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press. Copy­right © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. It has been mod­i­fied for this arti­cle, with the intro­duc­tions and con­clu­sions reworked.
From its incep­tion in the 1930s, the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), and par­tic­u­lar­ly its San Fran­cis­co Bay Area chap­ter, Local 10, have preached and prac­ticed racial equal­i­ty. First, the union com­mit­ted itself to equal­i­ty by deseg­re­gat­ing work gangs and open­ings its ranks to African Amer­i­cans, whose num­bers dras­ti­cal­ly increased dur­ing the World War II-induced Great Migra­tion. In addi­tion to work­ing towards racial equal­i­ty inside the ILWU, long­shore­men and their lead­ers, in Local 10 and at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el, par­tic­i­pat­ed in myr­i­ad inter­sec­tion­al social move­ments from the 1940s to the present. Thanks to this orga­niz­ing, long­shore work­ers and their union great­ly con­tributed to the growth and suc­cess of social move­ments in a piv­otal time in Bay Area, U.S. and world history.

An ear­ly, poignant exam­ple of the union’s com­mit­ment to eth­nic and racial equal­i­ty came in its prin­ci­pled yet high­ly con­tro­ver­sial oppo­si­tion to the per­se­cu­tion of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. In 1942 the ILWU con­demned the inter­ment of 125,000 Japan­ese and Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, ordered by Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt short­ly after the sur­prise Japan­ese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Har­bor, Hawai’i. Hos­til­i­ty towards Japan­ese immi­grants (by law, nev­er allowed to become U.S. cit­i­zens) and Japan­ese Amer­i­cans quick­ly reached fever pitch, and almost no Amer­i­cans came to their defense though, more recent­ly, most acknowl­edge the tram­pling of their Con­sti­tu­tion­al rights. Yet in sworn tes­ti­mo­ny before Con­gress in Feb­ru­ary 1942, only three months after Pearl Har­bor, ILWU leader Lou Gold­blatt sage­ly pre­dict­ed, this entire episode of hys­te­ria and mob chant against the native-born Japan­ese will form a dark page of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. It may well appear as one of the vic­to­ries one by the Axis pow­ers.” Sim­i­lar­ly, in May 1945, the month Ger­many sur­ren­dered and three months before Japan did, ILWU Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent Har­ry Bridges pushed to have a few Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, interned for most of the war, admit­ted to the Stock­ton divi­sion of Local 6 (Bay Area ware­house) in con­junc­tion with the government’s War Relo­ca­tion Author­i­ty. When the white major­i­ty divi­sion refused to allow them into the union, Bridges and Gold­blatt pulled the char­ter until the 700 mem­bers accept­ed this Japan­ese Amer­i­can into the local. The union’s com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty for Japan­ese Amer­i­cans was rare, to say the least, and remains large­ly unknown.

The ILWU has also been com­mit­ted to and fought for racial equal­i­ty since its birth in the 1930s. This sort of activism, still all-too-rare, is called civ­il rights union­ism or social move­ment union­ism. Exam­ples of how the ILWU worked in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the large­ly South­ern-based black free­dom strug­gle are too numer­ous to recount, but the union’s com­mit­ment was real and long-stand­ing. Bridges reg­u­lar­ly wrote in favor of racial equal­i­ty in his col­umn On the Beam” that appeared in the union’s news­pa­per, Dis­patch­er. In 1954 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its his­toric rul­ing against Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion in Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion, Bridges laud­ed it as a vic­to­ry for all decent and pro­gres­sive Amer­i­cans — whether Negro, white or any oth­er col­or,” because the Jim Crow sys­tem has been a can­cer on America.”

In 1963, the ILWU began sell­ing units in the hous­ing coop­er­a­tive that its pro­gres­sive lead­ers con­ceived of and financed as a response to urban rede­vel­op­ment” and a lack of afford­able hous­ing. Though not the first of its kind (sev­er­al cloth­ing work­er unions in New York City con­struct­ed thou­sands of such units), the St. Fran­cis Square Hous­ing Coop­er­a­tive was the Bay Area’s first. Begin­ning in 1960, the ILWU invest­ed some of its pen­sion funds into prop­er­ty that had been part of a 45-block area cleared, noto­ri­ous­ly, by city and fed­er­al hous­ing agen­cies in a move crit­i­cized by the leg­endary African Amer­i­can writer and activist, James Bald­win: urban renew­al which means mov­ing Negroes out; it means Negro removal.” The rede­vel­op­ment” of the Fill­more (also called the West­ern Addi­tion) and the city’s largest black neigh­bor­hood, began in the 1950s and con­tin­ued into the ear­ly 1970s, razed about 2,500 Vic­to­ri­an struc­tures and dis­placed more than 10,000 peo­ple — over­whelm­ing­ly African Amer­i­cans includ­ing hun­dreds of ILWU Local 6 and 10 mem­bers. ILWU Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Lou Gold­blatt explained why he devel­oped this project in 1979: what they were not doing was replac­ing the slums with any­thing that any of the peo­ple who had lived there could have any chance under the sun of com­ing back to.” St. Fran­cis’ 300-units were open to every eth­nic­i­ty and race, the first inte­grat­ed hous­ing devel­op­ment in SF, and its first man­ag­er was Rev­els Cay­ton, a black left-wing activist and ILWU mem­ber. ILWU mem­bers who lived in the Fill­more con­tin­ued resist­ing fur­ther clear­ings, albeit with lim­it­ed suc­cess. Ulti­mate­ly, the char­ac­ter of the Fill­more changed for­ev­er with far few­er blacks. The co-op, though, recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed its 50th anniversary.

Also in 1963, the ILWU and Local 10 helped orga­nize a huge civ­il rights demon­stra­tion in San Fran­cis­co and sup­port­ed anoth­er, the leg­endary March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom. Ear­ly that year, the nation’s eyes focused upon Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, nick­named America’s Johan­nes­burg” for being the most seg­re­gat­ed big city in the South. The South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, head­ed by Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., col­lab­o­rat­ed with local activists for sev­er­al months of non­vi­o­lent civ­il dis­obe­di­ence to high­light the per­sis­tence of racial seg­re­ga­tion, near­ly ten years after Brown v. Board. Chester, uti­liz­ing his many con­tacts helped cre­ate the Church-Labor Con­fer­ence that, on May 26th, brought togeth­er 20,000 peo­ple to march with a giant ban­ner read­ing We March in Uni­ty for Free­dom in Birm­ing­ham and Equal­i­ty in San Fran­cis­co.” An addi­tion­al 10,000 joined at the march’s end to ral­ly, and was the largest civ­il rights demon­stra­tion in the region’s his­to­ry. Three months lat­er, the ILWU donat­ed mon­ey and sent a del­e­ga­tion to the nation’s cap­i­tal for what proved to be the largest polit­i­cal gath­er­ing in U.S. His­to­ry, up to that time. One quar­ter of a mil­lion Amer­i­cans, most­ly black but with many whites, par­tic­i­pat­ed in the March on Wash­ing­ton to pres­sure the Con­gress and Pres­i­dent to pass a com­pre­hen­sive civ­il rights bill out­law­ing racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, once and for all. Trag­i­cal­ly, the response of some unre­con­struct­ed seg­re­ga­tion­ists was the blow­ing up of a black church, in Birm­ing­ham, close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the move­ment that killed four black girls. When word reached San Fran­cis­co, Local 10 mem­bers quick­ly shut down the port for a stop work meet­ing” in front of the U.S. Fed­er­al Build­ing to protest this ter­ror­ist attack.

Due to the union’s many efforts to fight racism, in 1967 Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. vis­it­ed Local 10 where he became an hon­orary mem­ber, like Paul Robe­son before him. King, best known for his I Have A Dream” speech, long had been inter­est­ed in and sup­port­ive of unions but proved increas­ing­ly so in his final years. He repeat­ed­ly encour­aged black work­ers to join and form unions, famous­ly call­ing them the first anti-pover­ty pro­gram.” King reg­u­lar­ly sup­port­ed and spoke to racial­ly inclu­sive unions, so it not sur­pris­ing that he vis­it­ed Local 10’s hir­ing hall. Address­ing a large gath­er­ing of dock­work­ers, King declared, I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strength­ened and ener­gized by the sup­port you have giv­en to our struggles…We’ve learned from labor the mean­ing of pow­er.” More than forty years lat­er, Local 10 mem­ber Cleophas Williams remem­ber the speech: He talked about the eco­nom­ics of dis­crim­i­na­tion” insight­ful­ly point­ing out, What he said, is what Bridges had been say­ing all along” about all work­ers ben­e­fit­ing by attack­ing racism and form­ing inter­ra­cial unions…The day after his stun­ning mur­der, April 9, 1968, the Bay Area was qui­et when more than 150 cities and towns erupt­ed into flames. Long­shore­men shut down the ports of San Fran­cis­co and Oak­land for their newest (hon­orary) mem­ber, as they always do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU mem­bers attend­ed King’s funer­al, in Atlanta, includ­ing Bridges, Chester, and Williams, elect­ed the local’s first black pres­i­dent the year prior.

Sim­i­lar­ly, it is nei­ther inci­den­tal nor coin­ci­den­tal that ILWU mem­bers in the Bay Area gave time­ly and sig­nif­i­cant sup­port to Cal­i­for­ni­ans seek­ing to form the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers (UFW). It is wide­ly known that migra­to­ry farm work­ers were heav­i­ly non-white (par­tic­u­lar­ly Mex­i­can and Fil­ipino Amer­i­cans) and immi­grant (Mex­i­can but also smat­ter­ings of oth­er peo­ples includ­ing Arabs). When Fil­ipino Amer­i­can farm work­ers struck large table and wine grape grow­ers in and around Delano, Cal­i­for­nia in 1965, they quick­ly joined forces with Cesar Chavez’s fledg­ling union, most­ly Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans. Thus began a five-year saga that — like the pre­dom­i­nant­ly African Amer­i­can san­i­ta­tion work­ers with their I Am A Man” cam­paign — com­bined ele­ments of labor and civ­il rights activism. On Novem­ber 17, 1965 a few of these strik­ers stood at the foot of SF Pier 50, hop­ing to con­vince long­shore­men not to load Delano grapes aboard the Pres­i­dent Wil­son, head­ed for Asia. One key activist, Gilbert Padil­la, described what hap­pened next:

We went there as the grapes were being loaded onto ships to Japan…and I’m stand­ing out there with a lit­tle card­board, with a pick­et [sign], Don’t eat grapes.’ then some of the long­shore­men asked, Is this a labor dis­pute?’ And I [was ner­vous and didn’t know whether we were legal­ly allowed to use the term, so I] said, No, no, no labor dis­pute.’ So they would walk in. Jim­my Her­man came over and asked me, What the hell you doing?’ And I told him we were strik­ing. He knew about the strike but want­ed to know, what are you ask­ing for?’ And I was telling him, and then he says, Come with me.’ He took me to his office; he was pres­i­dent of the clerks (a Longshoremen’s Union local). He took me to his office and he got on his hands and knees, Jim­my Her­man, and he made pick­et signs. And he told me, You go back there and don’t tell nobody about who gave you this. But you just stand there. [You] don’t [have to] say a god­damned thing.’ The sign said, Farm Work­ers on Strike.’ And every­body walked out of that fuck­ing place, man! That’s the first time I felt like I was 10 feet tall, man! Every­body walked out. So then they asked what’s hap­pen­ing and we were telling them, and Jesus Christ, man, I nev­er seen any­thing like it. There were trucks all the way up to the bridge, man!

That Bay Area long­shore­men and clerks active­ly sup­port­ed this move­ment comes as lit­tle sur­prise, espe­cial­ly as the ILWU orga­nized farm work­ers, over­whelm­ing­ly Asian Amer­i­cans, in Hawai’i in the 1950s.

Local 10 also played an inte­gral, if hid­den, role in the his­toric Pan-Indi­an occu­pa­tion of Alca­traz, one of the most incred­i­ble chap­ters in Bay Area social move­ment his­to­ry. Begin­ning in 1969, Amer­i­can Indi­ans, includ­ing many stu­dents at San Fran­cis­co State, planned and occu­pied the leg­endary Alca­traz Island, a for­mer fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiary. They did so to raise aware­ness of the des­per­ate plight of Amer­i­can Indi­ans and pro­mote cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal changes among both Indi­ans and the nation at large. Long for­got­ten or nev­er known is that a Local 10 long­shore­man, Indi­an Joe” Mor­ris, born and raised on the Black­foot reser­va­tion in Mon­tana, helped make the eigh­teen-month occu­pa­tion pos­si­ble. The twelve-acre Rock” was life­less so lit­er­al­ly every­thing need­ed to sus­tain the occu­piers’ lives, includ­ing water, had to come from the main­land (a main rea­son the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment stopped using it as a prison). Mor­ris secured the unused SF Pier 40 from which the trans­fer of all peo­ple and sup­plies occurred between the island and city. In his unpub­lished mem­oir, he writes, When the Indi­ans occu­pied Alca­traz Island I was the Alca­traz trou­bleshoot­er and main­land coor­di­na­tor.” Mor­ris also raised thou­sands of dol­lars from the ILWU and oth­er unions in sup­port and even took col­lec­tions at the Fer­ry Build­ing (now named after Har­ry Bridges). With­out Mor­ris’ unsung action, the occu­pa­tion — sim­ply put — could not have con­tin­ued very long. Mor­ris might have been the only Amer­i­can Indi­an in Local 10, but there was tremen­dous sym­pa­thy among oth­ers for the occu­pa­tion; for exam­ple, the ILWU Exec­u­tive Board praised the Indi­ans occu­py­ing Alca­traz as a haven and a sym­bol of the geno­cide they have suf­fered.” Mor­ris helped arrange for a del­e­ga­tion of Local 10 and oth­er ILWU mem­bers to vis­it Alca­traz, where Lou Gold­blatt pro­claimed, You folks are just like a labor union on strike. You have to last one day longer than the oth­er guy.” Wind­ing down in 1971, the Dis­patch­er fea­tured a pho­to­graph of Mor­ris hold­ing a paint­ing — his first ever — com­mem­o­rat­ing the occu­pa­tion though few know this inter­sec­tion­al history.

In 1969, the leg­endary African Amer­i­can activist Bayard Rustin wrote, the Negro can nev­er be social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly free until he is eco­nom­i­cal­ly secure.” Rustin could have been describ­ing the civ­il rights union­ism of ILWU Local 10. Or, as William Bill” Chester, an African Amer­i­can and long-time civ­il rights activist in the ILWU, recalled, We found that, in a sense, the union is the com­mu­ni­ty.” Bay Area long­shore work­ers did not stop with racial equal­i­ty, though. They also pro­vid­ed mighty assis­tance to many oth­er social move­ments across the Bay Area, nation and world.

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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