Building Worker Power on the Docks

Peter Cole

Dock workers in San Francisco and Durban, South Africa, have huge amounts of strategic leverage in the global economy. Both have long used that power not just to fight for better wages, but also to fight imperialism and racism.

Members of the Local 10 ILWU drill team join thousands of immigrants, union members and supporters march down Market Street in a send-off event for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a national movement to build support for reform of US immigration policy September 20, 2003 in downtown San Francisco. David Paul Morris / Getty Images

Interview by
Katy Fox-Hodess

Dockworkers have power. Workers in the world’s ports can harness their roles at strategic choke points to fight for their rights on the job as well as broader social justice causes.

Peter Cole brings this reality to light in a comparative study, Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. His research reveals how unions effected lasting change in some of the most far-reaching struggles of modern times. The book brings to light parallels in the experiences of dockers on different continents, showing how workers half a world away from one another can change their conditions and their world.

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He was interviewed by Katy Fox-Hodess, a lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield.

Katy Fox-Hodess

What was the genesis of the book, and why compare South Africa and the United States?

Peter Cole

Our world is characterized by growing connections among people worldwide taking advantage of the speed of travel and information. But many historians remain guilty of “methodological nationalism,” trying to tell an entire story within the confines of the often-random political boundaries of a single nation-state. That is not the way the world works, especially the maritime world, which is all about the global circulation of goods, people, and ideas.

So I wanted to embrace these realities, especially after teaching US History at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, in 2007. On that same trip, I visited South Africa because I was deeply inspired by the struggle against apartheid, quite possibly the greatest social movement since World War II.

I came to appreciate what some others already knew: that there are a shocking number of similarities between South Africa and the United States. The most obvious parallels are centuries of racist oppression and broad-based movements to overcome it. Related to that, these two societies were built upon the foundations of industrial capitalism and white supremacy. Capitalism and racism evolved together to create the modern world.

In my book, I argue that dockworkers in Durban and the Bay Area not only fought to improve their own material lives, but also critiqued both capitalism and racism. I also analyze how their workplace activism, particularly work stoppages, sought to overthrow apartheid in South Africa and promote civil rights in the United States. Ultimately, that was precisely why employers and governments sought to destroy dockworker power.

Katy Fox-Hodess

One of the major themes of the book is trade union anti-racism in deeply unequal and divided societies. What do you see as the key contributions of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 and the Durban dockers in this regard? And what lessons can trade unionists take from their example in the era of Black Lives Matter and recent movements for racial justice in South Africa?

Peter Cole

Simply put, in the mid-twentieth century, it is possible that the members of Local 10, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the ILWU, were as successful as any union in the United States or, truly, other institution, at integrating their own ranks and fighting for racial equality in the society beyond. Shortly after their initial strike, they integrated work gangs and dispatched black workers without prejudice.

During the World War II–induced Great Migration, which resulted in several hundred thousand African Americans moving to the Bay Area, Local 10 welcomed black dockworkers into their union — in stark contrast to the shipbuilding unions that excluded or segregated black workers — and defended their new members from their employers’ racism. In the postwar era, African Americans started getting elected to local offices. All of these actions occurred decades prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which dictated racial integration.

My book documents, for the first time, how the ILWU, and its largest and most important local for many decades in particular, promoted a radically egalitarian agenda. That’s why Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr were drawn to this union and inducted as honorary members. The union was committed to equality because of the left politics of many of its members as well as its legendary, longtime leader, the Australian immigrant Harry Bridges. Historian Robert Korstad described this as “civil rights unionism.”

For the Durban case, I explain how a well-organized group of workers — dockers in South Africa’s greatest port — repeatedly used their collective power in a society built upon racial capitalism. Thousands of black workers demonstrated power, particularly by withholding their labor and despite the horrific oppression of apartheid. Employers and the state understood quite clearly that tolerating such black power was a recipe for the destruction of apartheid, so they tried to destroy dockworker power through mass firings, police repression, overhauling the hiring system, introducing new technologies, and more.

As for relevant lessons, why, for instance, has Local 10 been way out front — especially among unions but also other institutions — on criticizing racist police practices in Oakland and elsewhere in the country? In no small part, it is because the union has many African American members, a long history of working with the wider black community on civil rights, and many decades of collaboration with other social justice groups.

For instance, on May Day in 2015, Local 10 members stopped work to protest the police killings of black people in the Bay Area as well as in North Charleston, South Carolina. One of the leaders of that action was Stacey Rodgers, a native Oaklander and outspoken rank-and-filer. It seems that unions take more progressive stances, say, on racism or undocumented workers, when their own memberships more fully reflect the demographics of the US working class.

Also notable is that Local 10 activists have participated in the revival of May Day in the Bay Area. They appreciate the import of this holiday that was created by workers, for workers.

Katy Fox-Hodess

As you’ve explained, ILWU Local 10, the dockworkers’ union in the San Francisco Bay Area, is an exceptional case within the US trade union movement, not only because of its pre–Civil Rights Movement position on racial integration, but also because of its long history of trade union democracy and radicalism in other areas. Why and how did Local 10 — and the Local 6, the Bay Area warehouse local — become bastions of radicalism and trade union democracy?

Peter Cole

The ILWU story began in 1934 with the Big Strike that shut down every port on the US Pacific Coast. When the San Francisco police did the bidding of shipping corporations and killed several workers in what became known as Bloody Thursday (now a contractual holiday for the ILWU), more than 100,000 workers responded with the San Francisco General Strike. The city was shut down for nearly a week.

Shortly thereafter, Franklin D. Roosevelt, probably the most worker-friendly US president ever, and Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor and the first-ever female cabinet member, pressured employers to negotiate. Out of the victorious Big Strike came a raise in wage rates, reduction in hours, union recognition, and a union-controlled job dispatch hall system that revolutionized the waterfront.

That last point, along with the immediate integration of work gangs in a previously segregated industry and virulently racist port city, are vital to understand. Instead of the hated “shape-up,” where masses of workers were forced to compete against each other and bribe the hiring bosses, employers literally had to call the union for workers. The union elected some of its own members to serve as job dispatchers who assigned workers in a radically egalitarian manner: among those who showed up at the union hall looking for work, dispatchers selected workers based upon whoever had worked the fewest hours in that part of the year. Truly, the last had become first.

This system bonded the members to each other and built what Herb Mills, a Local 10 intellectual and leader, later framed as the building of a community. Workers became loyal to each other because they worked together on the job, fought for a better system, and then enforced equality through the democratic structures they instituted.

Katy Fox-Hodess

Despite Local 10 and the ILWU International’s immense contributions to the Left, not all of the union’s locals followed a similar line on issues of racism and internationalism. You argue that the International leadership generally took a laissez-faire approach to racism in the locals, which they justified via the principle of local-level trade union democracy.

Was the International justified in its approach? If not, what more could have been done to push recalcitrant locals forward?

Peter Cole

Bridges and other International leaders did push a recalcitrant group of white warehouse workers in Local 6’s Stockton branch. Right at the end of World War II, the ILWU suspended the charter of this division when they refused to induct a Japanese American who had been interned during the war. Yet at the same time, Bridges and other International officers refused for decades to push Local 13 (Los Angeles–Long Beach) or Local 8 (Portland), both of which resisted accepting African Americans. It seems to me that Bridges — despite being personally a lion among civil rights unionists — could have done more on this matter.

Of course, the counterargument is that Bridges — and really the entire ILWU — was relentlessly red-baited in the 1940s and 1950s, so they were constantly on their heels. Plus, Bridges and others were worried that locals with more conservative members might break away and rejoin the more conservative (to put it kindly) East Coast union, the International Longshoremen’s Association. It would have been wise for Bridges and others in the ILWU leadership to push harder on locals that violated the union’s principled commitment to (racial) equality. Inequality does not simply disappear over time; we must fight to eradicate it.

Katy Fox-Hodess

For both ILWU Local 10 and the Durban dockers, ties to “outside” political and community groups seemed to have proven quite significant in shaping both their politics and their success. How were these relationships formed and sustained? And what lessons do you take from these experiences for radical trade union activists today?

Peter Cole

In both the Bay Area and Durban, waterfront workers and their organizations aligned with other social movements. For instance, the ILWU regularly worked with black churches to promote civil rights in both the Bay Area and the Southern-based movement. Similarly, they worked with other unions, student and religious groups, and others in the anti-apartheid movement, as well as in more recent protests in solidarity with Palestinian statehood. So too in Durban, where the dockers’ impressive 2008 stand against unloading Chinese weapons intended for neighboring Zimbabwe benefited from allies in civil society.

As to how, there’s no single answer. In some cases, Local 10 members reached out to others outside their union, but the reverse has also happened. Local 10’s reputation for progressive activism is so well known (it has been called “the conscience of the labor movement”) that it’s regularly asked to stop work on behalf of other causes. The most impressive instance was in 2011 when 30,000 (or more) people marched to the Port of Oakland and shut down the port, with the help of the longshore workers, in what I consider Occupy’s greatest moment.

There is no question that activists, inside and outside of unions, need to build such ties — and not just when they want some help. If you want support for your cause, then you have to show up for others. The ILWU commands such respect among activists and the Left because it has done the work, literally, over eighty years.

Katy Fox-Hodess

You note that despite the ILWU’s well-earned reputation for militancy and activism, there was actually a significant lull for nearly a generation after the Second World War, with limited strike activity and a tapering off of political engagement. How do you account for this lull, and how was the union’s militancy and engaged radicalism reactivated after this period of relative quiescence?

Peter Cole

Harry Bridges was loudly and frequently accused of being a communist. He and his union suffered greatly because of pervasive anti-communist hostility in the United States so common in the 1940s and 1950s (though the second Red Scare even began before World War II). While he always denied membership in the Communist Party, he suffered through five lengthy trials over twenty years — and was found innocent in all of them.

As US Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy wrote about Bridges: “Seldom if ever in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise that freedom which belongs to him as a human being and is guaranteed him by the Constitution.” Or, as Bridges joked, “I don’t deny that I’ve had due process. I’ve had all the due process I want.”

Red-baiting definitely limited Bridges’s options, but not only his. Many leftists in the ILWU, in other maritime unions, and in social movements (including civil rights) were on the defensive right after World War II ended; it’s been said the Cold War had a chilling effect domestically too. So we shouldn’t underestimate repression. It can, does, and has worked; that’s also why, arguably, the civil rights movement didn’t really get going until the 1960s.

The ILWU’s golden years didn’t last long. The ILWU fought, and won, a lengthy strike in 1948 that was all about trying to destroy Bridges and the Left. When employers lost in ’48, ILWU members had a respite but, by 1960, employers—and Bridges—were pushing for a new contract that resulted in massive automation without guerrilla resistance.

In the 1960s, the union entered another phase of militancy and radicalism. This change was as much a product of the larger milieu and less the union itself. That is, the national civil rights movement and escalation of the US war in Vietnam resulted in a rising of many millions. This surge in social movements went global by the mid to late 1960s. Dockworkers were shaped by these forces as much as they helped shape them.

Katy Fox-Hodess

While dockworkers are known for their ability to exercise tremendous economic pressure by stopping the flow of commerce, in both the United States and South Africa, dockworkers faced massive challenges at points in using their power as a result of state intervention, including overt forms of state violence. Could you explain the most significant obstacles that dockworkers have faced in using their power in both countries, and to what extent and how these obstacles have been overcome?

Peter Cole

In both Durban and the Bay Area, employers used a variety of legal and illegal means to prevent workers from improving their lives. These included longstanding and time-tested tactics: firing workers and threatening to do so; pitting workers against each other based upon differences such ethnicity, race, skill, and so on; playing favorites in order to gain the loyalty of some workers; surveillance; and, of course, police and governmental repression.

My book, though, also focuses on the introduction of new technologies in order to reduce the number of workers (that is, labor costs), increase productivity, and weaken or destroy worker power and their unions. Specifically, I examine the introduction of shipping containers, which revolutionized global trade and global capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Whole industries relocated, millions of workers lost their jobs (and millions gained them in other countries), consumerism was overhauled, and much more.

For dockworkers, the greatest and most obvious impact was the plummeting in their numbers. Today, fewer than 10 percent of the dockworkers move more than ten times the volume of cargo as before the shipping revolution. Although dockworkers, generally and in the two ports I examine, managed to hold onto their unions, their ranks were drastically reduced and organizations were weakened. (Their numbers might have decreased further were it not for the massive increase in cargo moved; that is, containerization and other related processes resulted in a huge spike in global trade.)

In both places, employers had local, state/provincial, and national governments on their sides. For instance, during the apartheid era, when black workers were fired (“retrenched”), they also were deported from the city to their rural “homelands,” which were places of tremendous desperation, poverty, and suffering. In San Francisco, left-wing dockworkers (communists, Trotskyists, Wobblies, and so on) suffered massive persecution.

Katy Fox-Hodess

As you argue in the book, ILWU Local 10 and the Durban Dockers have both played leading roles in trade union internationalism in their respective countries, up to the present, with actions taken in recent years in support of Palestinian liberation. How were these commitments to internationalism shaped, and how did they play out in practice?

Peter Cole

One of the major themes in my book is the long history of international solidarity practiced by dockworkers in both Durban and the Bay Area. Time and again, Bay Area dockworkers refused to work cargo or entire ships for political reasons. During the 1930s, San Francisco longshoremen refused to load metal aboard a Japanese ship to protest that country’s invasion of China.

Much of my research has focused upon Bay Area dockworkers’ decades-long efforts to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa. As early as 1962, they refused to unload South African cargo, in coordination with anti-apartheid activists in the community. Their most impressive effort was a ten-day boycott of South African cargo in 1984 that inspired many other anti-apartheid actions in the Bay Area and received thanks and praise from no less a person than Nelson Mandela.

Similarly, Durban dockers have also engaged in what could be considered political strikes. In 1935, they briefly refused to load food aboard an Italian ship to protest that country’s invasion of Ethiopia. My book deeply explores their 2008 refusal to unload Chinese weapons intended for Zimbabwe; at that time, then-president Robert Mugabe had unleashed his police and army to kill and intimidate Zimbabweans to not vote for the opposition party, led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai.

The Durban dock leaders I interviewed made clear that they acted in solidarity with their fellow workers in Zimbabwe — that is, not wanting to unload weapons and ammunition that would kill Zimbabwean workers. They also appreciated that, in decades past, Zimbabweans had aided black South Africans in the struggle against apartheid.

In South Africa, there is tremendous sympathy for and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement. The comparison between South African apartheid and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is imperfect (as is every comparison), but what I tell Americans is that South Africans are very clear about it: when they visit Israel/Palestine, they clearly and loudly decry the situation—they name it apartheid. So it is not surprising that Durban dockers, and the entire South African labor movement, have criticized Israel.

For instance, one press release issued by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) called attention to Israel’s “flagrant breaches of international law, the bombing of densely populated neighbourhoods, the illegal deployment of white phosphorous, and attacks on schools, ambulances, relief agencies, hospitals, universities and places of worship” and declared that “the momentum against apartheid Israel has become an irresistible force.” When the Israeli-owned Zim shipping line has docked in Durban, there have been protests on multiple occasions.

Similarly, as early as its 1988 convention, the ILWU officially criticized the Israeli treatment of Palestinians by proclaiming Israel guilty of “state-sponsored terrorism.” This resolution also quoted Israeli journalist Amos Elon, who described Gaza as “the Soweto of the State of Israel.” In fact, it was the African American Leo Robinson—the leader of Local 10’s anti-apartheid activism—who was among the most outspoken on this matter. In the 2010s in the Bay Area, Arab American activists increasingly have taken the lead on this issue. They worked with allies inside Local 10 to “Block the Boat,” preventing the loading and unloading of cargo from Zim line ships, most dramatically and successfully in 2014.

Katy Fox-Hodess

You argue that the results of containerization and casualization were quite different in each country, though you make the case that the ILWU could have done better than it did in its landmark negotiations on containerization. Why did the unions experience divergent trajectories as a result of these changes? And what lessons might we draw today for dockworkers globally facing the threat of automation?

Peter Cole

The short version of my argument is unsurprising considering the book’s title: power. These matters are complex, but I contend that, in the 1930s, San Francisco dockworkers had the power to eradicate the many horrible aspects of casual labor and hiring though they — crucially — held on to some attractive aspects, particularly that workers decided when they wanted to work. No Monday to Friday, nine to five grind for them. I named this “decasualization from below.”

By contrast, in Durban, employers and the state wanted to destroy dockers’ ability to coordinate “stay-aways” (strikes, basically) that exploited a legal loophole; black workers, by law, could not strike but casual workers, by law, did not have a guaranteed job, so if they all didn’t report for work, they weren’t striking. That is, when a few thousand dockers didn’t seek to be hired one day, essentially it was a strike.

In order to rid themselves of this ongoing problem, which the dockers increasingly deployed in coordination with anti-apartheid groups like the African National Congress, in 1959 employers and the government instituted “decasualization from above,” i.e. a new hiring and employment system. In each case, the side with the power promoted decasualization for their own ends.

Similarly, dockworker power shaped how containerization proceeded. In Durban, dockers had little power to control how containers were introduced, so they suffered all the pain: half the workforce was fired inside of three years, nor did they see a dime in increased wages despite rising productivity. In addition, as a result of containerization, when millions of other black workers started organizing to fight apartheid and their own poverty, Durban dockers — for decades among the most militant workers in the country—were silent.

By contrast, in San Francisco and across the Pacific Coast, the ILWU was strong enough that employers had no choice but to negotiate over containerization. The union successfully protected their current generation of workers — not a single worker was laid off — and commanded much higher wages, a “share of the machine,” as Bridges called it. Very rarely do employers ask workers before introducing new tech, so the fact that shippers did so is further proof of dockworker power. Yet containerization definitely weakened the union.

What could Bridges and the rest of the union have been done differently? It’s no easy question. But I suggest that the union missed an opportunity to advocate for an old Wobbly solution: the four-hour day.

Workers in the United States fought for about eighty years for an eight-hour workday, implemented in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Considering the massive gains in productivity as well as population growth of the nation and world, it’s quite reasonable that all of us workers could work less—for at least the same earnings.

Alas, such an idea, as far as I know, was never seriously discussed during the negotiations in the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s now been over eighty years since the FLSA and many workers (wage and salaried) toil far more than eight hours a day.

Today, I don’t know of a greater threat to workers than automation. Pick any industry. Other than climate change, I think this matter is the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century. Dockworkers also, once more, are at risk of another wave of automation that could create, in the words of shipping corporations and port boosters, “fully automated ports.” That means no dockworkers. No doubt, there would be a handful of people pushing buttons but, truly, there are companies pushing this agenda—and not because of productivity gains. There are studies that suggest today’s dockworkers are as productive as fully automated ports. Instead, employers continue pushing for more automation because machines don’t engage in work stoppages. At least not yet.

I undertook this comparative study of Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area to examine how and why dockworkers had — and still have — power. In each city, dockworkers drew on longstanding radical traditions to promote racial equality. They persevered when a new technology — containerization — sent a shockwave of layoffs through the industry. Even today, workers in the world’s ports can harness their role, at a strategic choke point, to promote their labor rights. They also have demonstrated an impressive commitment to internationalism and leftist politics by engaging in transnational work stoppages to protest racism and authoritarianism.