The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth

Peter Cole

Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Out­rage over the police mur­der of George Floyd launched Black Lives Mat­ter protests across the coun­try and world. Most actions are being orga­nized by young black peo­ple. While many are work­ing-class and at least some are anti-cap­i­tal­ist, few protests are for­mal­ly part of the labor movement.

That may change this Fri­day when the most rad­i­cal union in the Unit­ed States shuts down the country’s gate­way to the world, West Coast ports, in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Black Lives Mat­ter on the day com­mem­o­rat­ing the end of slav­ery. As Clarence Thomas, a long-time dock­work­er activist for black equal­i­ty and social­ism, not­ed recent­ly, It will be the first time that an inter­na­tion­al union has ever tak­en off from work for the pur­pose of com­mem­o­rat­ing Juneteenth.”

Thomas, an African Amer­i­can from Oak­land, is a proud, third-gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU). Arguably, no union has fought longer and hard­er for black equal­i­ty. As Willie Adams, the union’s first black Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent, recent­ly declared: Our union has a long his­to­ry of con­fronting racism on the job, in our com­mu­ni­ties and around the world.”

By con­trast, most unions — hypo­thet­i­cal­ly, the col­lec­tive voice of work­ing peo­ple — seem hes­i­tant to take action. While per­haps by mis­take, the trash­ing of the AFL-CIO head­quar­ters, locat­ed near the White House, exem­pli­fied the yawn­ing divide sep­a­rat­ing black and youth pro­test­ers and orga­nized labor.” Yet, con­sid­er that the AFL-CIO, how­ev­er weak it may seem, still rep­re­sents 12,500,000 work­ers. There is no larg­er move­ment of ordi­nary peo­ple than unions. Despite their poten­tial, unions are issu­ing nice­ly word­ed state­ments but pro­vid­ing lit­tle tan­gi­ble sup­port to the cur­rent protests, the largest work­ing-class upris­ing in two generations.

Some unions, such as the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) are active­ly chal­leng­ing racism, police bru­tal­i­ty, and oth­er reac­tionary poli­cies with pro­gres­sive, for­ward-think­ing actions. Such mil­i­tan­cy and rad­i­cal­ism, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, have emerged in unions with larg­er num­bers of black and brown, immi­grant, and female mem­bers. Still, the ILWU’s June­teenth action rais­es the bar for what work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty with Black Lives Mat­ter looks like.

The breadth and depth of this union’s rad­i­cal com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty may shock those who stereo­type unions as lib­er­al or even con­ser­v­a­tive. Har­ry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time pres­i­dent, once declared in the 1940s, If things reached a point where only two men were left on the water­front, if he had any­thing to say about it, one would be a black man.” Him­self an Aus­tralian immi­grant and anti-cap­i­tal­ist, Bridges made this claim when this union was more than 90% white.

Zack Pat­tin, a white, rank-and-file activist in ILWU Local 23 (Taco­ma), proud­ly recount­ed to this writer some of his union’s his­to­ry: We pass down sto­ries about inte­grat­ing the water­front and our union in the 30s and 40s, oppo­si­tion to Japan­ese intern­ment, Harry’s depor­ta­tion tri­als and the fight for immi­grant rights, sup­port for Dr. King and the civ­il rights move­ment, sup­port for Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, refus­ing to han­dle South African car­go to protest Apartheid, and resis­tance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

ILWU mem­bers also under­stand the role of police in under­min­ing social move­ments. Pat­tin made this con­nec­tion by high­light­ing the Big Strike of 1934, out of which his union was born. It’s not lost to us that the for­ma­tive moment in our his­to­ry — Bloody Thurs­day — was a police mur­der [of two strik­ers] right out­side the San Fran­cis­co union hall on July 5, 1934,” he said.

That’s why Jack Hey­man, a vet­er­an Local 10 activist and white anti-racist, recent­ly told The Nation, if you look at ILWU locals’ bylaws, many of them explic­it­ly ban police from mem­ber­ship. That’s because the police have been always been used as tools in the fight against the work­ing people.”

Local 10, the only black-major­i­ty long­shore branch, and its com­pan­ion Local 34, have led the way in con­demn­ing racist, police bru­tal­i­ty. In 2010, the unions shut down the Port of Oak­land after local law enforce­ment killed Oscar Grant. They did so again on May Day, in 2015, to protest the police mur­der of Wal­ter Scott, an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

After George Floyd’s mur­der, the country’s lead­ing social jus­tice union once more is play­ing a major role. Last Tues­day, the ILWU downed tools for nine min­utes dur­ing Floyd’s funer­al. This Fri­day, June­teenth, the ILWU will shut down all twen­ty-nine ports it con­trols — from San Diego to Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton — for the entire, eight-hour day shift.

Dock­work­ers intend to use their labor pow­er to send a mes­sage. As Local 10 Pres­i­dent Trent Willis, an African Amer­i­can, declared at an SEIU-led protest in Berke­ley on June 13, We’re send­ing a clear state­ment to the pow­ers that be, our gov­ern­ment. We’re send­ing a clear state­ment to these cor­po­rate boss­es that we intend to use our labor, put our labor where our mouth is. We intend to take eco­nom­ic action if our demands are not met.” Willis was refer­ring to the demand to end racist policing.

When tak­ing this polit­i­cal stand, dock­work­ers appre­ci­ate that their strate­gic loca­tions at hubs of glob­al trans­port give them tremen­dous pow­er. The Pacif­ic Mar­itime Asso­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents ship­ping cor­po­ra­tions, explained in a June 8 state­ment why that mat­ters: West Coast ports han­dle a major­i­ty of the mar­itime car­go that helps fuel the U.S. econ­o­my, brings vital goods and med­ical sup­plies to local com­mu­ni­ties, and sup­ports mil­lions of Amer­i­can jobs.” Clarence Thomas put it suc­cinct­ly: Long­shore work­ers prob­a­bly under­stand cap­i­tal­ism bet­ter than any­one else…If the car­go doesn’t come off the ship, that’s mer­chan­dise not sold. Stop­ping work…is not a sym­bol; it’s an act that demon­strates the lever­age of the work­ing class.”

Willis, Thomas, Gabriel Prawl (of Local 52, Seat­tle), Kei­th Shanklin (Local 34 pres­i­dent) and oth­ers orga­nized this June­teenth stop-work pri­or to Trump’s provo­ca­tion to speak that day, in Tul­sa of all places. An ILWU press release explains this day’s sig­nif­i­cance, past and present: June­teenth com­mem­o­rates the end of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States. On this date in 1865, Black Slaves in Texas were told of their eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery two years after the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion became effective…our nation has made progress but the changes nec­es­sary to end sys­temic racism have come slow­ly or not at all, as the mur­der of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020 demonstrated.”

Shanklin, the first black per­son elect­ed to head Local 34, summed up at the June 13 protest in Berke­ley why the ILWU will con­duct this June­teenth stop-work: to stand up against sys­temic police oppres­sion and sys­temic police bru­tal­i­ty. We need to under­stand one thing. We can­not sur­vive in this world no more with police bru­tal­i­ty. It’s time for it to end.”

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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