Don’t Like War? Then Don’t Work! Remembering When Dockworkers Shut Down the Ports on May Day

Peter Cole

To resist Trump’s agenda, Oakland longshore workers shut down their workplace and reminded us of the potential of organized labor. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

​May Day — a legal hol­i­day for work­ers in most coun­tries — was born in Chica­go. On May 1, 1886, work­ers shut down America’s great­est indus­try city, and oth­er cities too, to demand the 8‑hour work­day. In 1894, the U.S. Con­gress inten­tion­al­ly cre­at­ed a Labor Day at anoth­er time of the year, but some Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue cel­e­brat­ing the orig­i­nal, real Labor Day.

On May 1, 2008, 10,000 mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), one of the strongest and most mil­i­tant unions in the Unit­ed States, walked in those Chicagoans’ foot­steps. They did so by walk­ing off the docks at all 29 West Coast ports, com­plete­ly shut­ting down America’s Pacif­ic trad­ing network. 

These work­ers did so, they said, to demand an imme­di­ate end to the war and occu­pa­tion in Iraq and Afghanistan and the with­draw­al of U.S. troops from the Mid­dle East.” Their action revealed the pow­er of orga­nized labor as well as ongo­ing frus­tra­tion with U.S. wars that con­tin­ue to this very day.

Protest­ing impe­ri­al­ist wars

The plan for this stop work” orig­i­nat­ed inside Local 10, which rep­re­sents dock­work­ers through­out the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. Jack Hey­man, a long-time rank-and-file mil­i­tant in Local 10, played a key role in orga­niz­ing for the 2008 May Day action, along­side oth­er inter­na­tion­al­ly-mind­ed social­ists in the local. In 2007, these social­ists helped orga­nize an inter­na­tion­al labor con­fer­ence to stop the war in Iraq. Union­ists from around the world par­tic­i­pat­ed, as did British Labour MP Jere­my Cor­byn. As Hey­man tells In These Times, The main res­o­lu­tion of that con­fer­ence was for trade unions to go back and orga­nize strikes at the point of production.”

Sub­se­quent­ly, Local 10 offered a res­o­lu­tion at the ILWU Long­shore Cau­cus, in which work­ers elect­ed from every local meet to estab­lish union-wide pol­i­cy. They pro­posed a stop work meet­ing” dur­ing the day shift on May Day to protest America’s impe­ri­al­ist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although with­in their con­trac­tu­al rights, rarely are such meet­ings held for an entire shift, let alone for a day shift or for a polit­i­cal reason. 

The Inter­na­tion­al offi­cers and Local 13 offi­cials (Port of Los Ange­les-Long Beach) urged cau­tion, as recalled by sev­er­al work­ers present at this Cau­cus. How­ev­er, as Saman­tha Lev­ens, then a rank-and-file mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co Region of the ILWU’s Inland Boatmen’s Union, recalls in an inter­view with In These Times, Mem­bers from across the ILWU rose and spoke in favor of the res­o­lu­tion. I was new to the ILWU at this time, so this was the most mov­ing thing to me. Many mem­bers spoke pas­sion­ate­ly against the war, many were vet­er­ans or had chil­dren in the mil­i­tary.” The res­o­lu­tion passed 97 – 3.

After much plan­ning, includ­ing the orga­niz­ing of march­es and ral­lies in con­junc­tion with the shut­downs, ILWU mem­bers stopped work in every port on May 1. As Seattle’s Local 19 Pres­i­dent Her­ald Ugles said at the time, Nor­mal­ly, when I see the cranes all boomed-up [long­shore par­lance for not mov­ing], it makes me sad … But today it’s a great sight to see — not just here, but all up and down the West Coast!”

Hey­man recalls, That was uncer­tain going into the action, because PMA [Pacif­ic Mar­itime Asso­ci­a­tion], the employ­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, was pub­li­ciz­ing that the action was ille­gal and they’d take action in courts to stop it. Besides, they arro­gant­ly stat­ed that the largest long­shore local on the Coast, L.A., would go to work. L.A. offi­cials were not com­mit­ting them­selves, but on May Day the mem­ber­ship spoke loud and clear. Noth­ing was mov­ing on the docks that day!”

Thanks poured in from around the world. As pub­lished in the June 2008 issue of the ILWU’s month­ly mag­a­zine, Dis­patch­er, some­one iden­ti­fied as M.J.” wrote, My hus­band is cur­rent­ly serv­ing his sec­ond 15-month tour in Iraq. I want to thank you for your brave, and in my view, high­ly effec­tive protest of the Iraq war. My hus­band and I are very pro-union for a lot of rea­sons, and you’ve giv­en us anoth­er great rea­son to proud­ly say Union YES!!!”

Per­haps the most poignant mes­sage came from the Gen­er­al Union of Port Work­ers in Iraq: The coura­geous deci­sion you made to car­ry out a strike on May Day to protest against the war and occu­pa­tion of Iraq advances our strug­gle against occu­pa­tion to bring a bet­ter future for us and for the rest of the world as well.”

Long­shore work­ers tried to show the labor move­ment that the work­ing class has the pow­er to stop these impe­ri­al­ist wars,” says Hey­man. The chant at the start of the Iraq War in the port of Oak­land [in 2003] was War is for prof­it, work­ers can stop it!”

Social jus­tice unionism

The 2008 action belongs to the ILWU’s 80-year-and-count­ing his­to­ry of labor and polit­i­cal activism. From its incep­tion, the ILWU has been racial­ly inte­grat­ed, and Local 10 has proven par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mit­ted to recruit­ing African Amer­i­cans and oth­er work­ing peo­ple of col­or. In their for­ma­tive Big Strike” of 1934, dock­work­ers won a coast-wide con­tract, a union-con­trolled hir­ing hall, wage increas­es and more.

Dock­work­ers refused to han­dle car­go for fas­cist Japan in the 1930s and from apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

In 1999, the ILWU shut down the coast to demand the release of jour­nal­ist, for­mer Black Pan­ther and death row polit­i­cal pris­on­er Mumia Abu-Jamal. Arguably, their effort played a role in stop­ping the state of Penn­syl­va­nia from exe­cut­ing him.

On May Day 2015, to protest police killings of African Amer­i­cans, par­tic­u­lar­ly Wal­ter Scott in Charleston, South Car­oli­na, Local 10 shut down Bay Area ports. And last August, the ILWU helped lead resis­tance to a planned alt-right protest in San Francisco.

The May Day 2008 anti-war walk-out was a clear reminder of the right and need of union mem­bers to be social activists,” Todd Iver­son, a cur­rent leader in Local 23 (Taco­ma) and par­tic­i­pant in 2008, tells In These Times. The ILWU has a long his­to­ry of stand­ing up for social jus­tice from apartheid to wage inequal­i­ty and more recent­ly Black Lives Mat­ter. We as ILWU mem­bers feel an oblig­a­tion to be the voice for the voiceless.”

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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