Want to Stop Trump? Take a Page From These Dockworkers, and Stop Work

Peter Cole January 23, 2017

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)

On the day of Don­ald Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, many Amer­i­cans wrung their hands. Some took to social media to express their dis­con­tent while oth­ers protest­ed. But, per­haps, the most dra­mat­ic and impor­tant action was tak­en by dock­work­ers in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia: They stopped work­ing. Their strike demon­strat­ed the poten­tial pow­er ordi­nary peo­ple have on the job, when organized.

Long­shore work­ers, who load and unload car­go ships, chose not to report to their hir­ing hall. As a result, Oak­land Inter­na­tion­al Con­tain­er Ter­mi­nal, the largest con­tain­er facil­i­ty at the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia port, was shut down Fri­day,” accord­ing to the Jour­nal of Com­merce. It also report­ed that all oth­er Oak­land con­tain­er ter­mi­nals were essen­tial­ly shut down, too.

Cru­cial­ly, these work­ers did not first come togeth­er to protest Trump. They belong to the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), one of the strongest and most mil­i­tant unions left in the Unit­ed States.

The ILWU, found­ed in the 1930s, rep­re­sents logis­tics work­ers up and down the West Coast of the Unit­ed States, in Alas­ka, Hawaii, British Colum­bia and Pana­ma. For some 80 years, the union has fought for equal rights, democ­ra­cy, eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty and a vast array of oth­er social jus­tice caus­es. ILWU Local 10, which rep­re­sents work­ers in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, often has been at the fore­front of those fights.

ILWU mem­bers refused to load scrap met­al intend­ed for Japan because it had invad­ed Chi­na in the 1930s. The ILWU con­demned the racist, apartheid régime in South Africa and Local 10 mem­bers peri­od­i­cal­ly refused to unload South African car­go, includ­ing in the face of fed­er­al injunc­tions and employ­er pres­sure. They also refused, in 1978, to load U.S. mil­i­tary aid for Augus­to Pinochet, a Chilean mil­i­tary gen­er­al who led a coup against a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed, social­ist pres­i­dent, Sal­vador Allende. On May Day 2008, the ILWU shut down Pacif­ic Coast ports to protest the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Activists take the lead

One key ele­ment of ILWU pow­er is its job dis­patch sys­tem. In the after­math of its leg­endary Big Strike of 1934, which briefly became the San Fran­cis­co gen­er­al strike, the union basi­cal­ly won con­trol over job dis­patch. Quick­ly, work­ers imple­ment­ed a low man out” sys­tem, which enshrined the idea that the per­son with the fewest num­ber of hours worked be the first one dis­patched. Such social­ism in action should not be sur­pris­ing from a union whose found­ing mem­bers includ­ed social­ists, com­mu­nists and Wob­blies, the name for mem­bers of per­haps America’s most rad­i­cal union, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World. The ILWU also inher­it­ed the Wob­bly mot­to, An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Today, though some work­ers are assigned to spe­cif­ic com­pa­nies on a long-term basis, many still are dis­patched via hir­ing halls. This sys­tem gives work­ers incred­i­ble pow­er because they decide when to report for work, cre­at­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty for work­ers to coor­di­nate not show­ing up. The result, as seen on Fri­day, was to shut down the port of Oakland.

Obvi­ous­ly, many work­ers, nation­wide, do not oper­ate under a dis­patch sys­tem. But they can still orga­nize some­thing sim­i­lar with­out tech­ni­cal­ly call­ing a strike.

At the end of 2014, New York City police offi­cers coor­di­nat­ed a vir­tu­al work stop­page,” nick­named the Blue Flu.” And last year, Detroit pub­lic school teach­ers, enraged by the awful con­di­tions stu­dents and teach­ers suf­fer from because of a lack of state fund­ing, orga­nized an effec­tive sick­out.” In oth­er words, work­ers need not offi­cial­ly strike,” or even belong to a labor union, to engi­neer a shutdown.

Impor­tant­ly, Friday’s action was not orga­nized or endorsed by the ILWU lead­er­ship. Since its incep­tion, the ILWU has stood on the left tip of the U.S. labor move­ment, but even this union has become more con­ser­v­a­tive dur­ing the past few decades. Nowa­days, rank-and-file activists in Local 10 often take the lead.

There is power”

Like most unions and work­ing peo­ple, the ILWU oppos­es much of Trump’s anti-labor agen­da, which pro­motes right-to-work” (more accu­rate­ly right-to-work-for-less) leg­is­la­tion, con­demns pub­lic sec­tor unions, seeks to pri­va­tize pub­lic schools and reverse the Oba­ma administration’s actions on pay­ing more work­ers over­time, reduc­ing wage theft and ensur­ing work­er safe­ty. Trump’s pro­posed labor sec­re­tary, for one, has made his anti-work­er posi­tions clear. (That said, Trump’s oppo­si­tion to the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship is welcome.)

Nor have Bay Area long­shore work­ers for­got­ten Trump’s insult of Oak­land. The pres­i­dent once said, There are places in Amer­i­ca that are among the most dan­ger­ous in the world. You go to places like Oak­land. Or Fer­gu­son. The crime num­bers are worse. Seriously.”

To resist Trump’s agen­da, Oak­land long­shore work­ers shut down their work­place and remind­ed us of the poten­tial of orga­nized labor. As the old song, writ­ten by Joe Hill and sung by Utah Phillips, declares, There is pow­er, there is pow­er in a band of work­ing folks, when we stand hand-in-hand. That’s a pow­er, that’s a pow­er that must rule in every land.”

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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