International Dockworker Solidarity, Fictionalized

Labor has the power to halt the war machine. Dockworkers have often exercised this power, and a new novel by Herb Mills tells a tale, rooted in his own experiences, of stevedores refusing to load US weapons for the brutal El Salvador dictatorship in 1980.

Dockworker working in Albany, New York, January 26, 1994. (John Carl D'Annibale / Albany Times Union via Getty Images Archive)

Labor organizing has always been the stuff of high drama, replete with clandestine plots, heroic underdogs, and greedy villains. Strange, then, that there aren’t more dramatic cultural depictions of that high drama. One exception: Presente: A Dockworker Story, a new novel by the late union leader Herb Mills (1930–2018), which captures the action, intrigue, and passion of class struggle in a fictionalized account of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)’s 1980 refusal to load military aid to the US-backed military dictatorship in El Salvador.

As Israel’s genocidal military campaign rages in Gaza, Mills’s brisk, dialogue-driven thriller is also an urgent reminder of the kind of militant international solidarity that the US labor movement desperately needs to recover.

By late 1980, El Salvador was in full-scale civil war, the country’s five leading political-military organizations united in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) against a brutal anti-communist military junta. After the March 24 assassination of renowned archbishop Óscar Romero and Ronald Reagan’s election in November, the ILWU “decided that when and if we learned of any further military aid being sent from any ports we worked, we would immediately announce our refusal to load it.”

It would not be the first time Mills’s union took action against counterrevolutionary forces abroad. As labor historian Peter Cole notes in the afterword, ILWU San Francisco Bay Local 10 was “one of a number of unions expelled from the CIO at the height of the nation’s anti-Communist fervor after World War II, and the only one that survived fully intact.” In the 1930s, four members of the local were killed fighting fascism in Spain. The union refused to load cargo for Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1935 or imperialist Japan between 1938 and 1940.

There was more recent precedent as well. In 1978, Mills helped lead the union’s refusal to load bomb parts headed to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. After the workers rallied public support through allies in Congress, Jimmy Carter’s administration backed down and canceled the shipment.

But when a dockworker discovered military cargo bound for El Salvador in the early days of December 1980, Carter was on his way out, and Ronald Reagan’s incoming administration was promising to redouble support for the antidemocratic regimes defending US corporate interests in Central America.

The refusal to load cargo violated the union’s contract. Workers would have to stage a wildcat strike, which would lead to costly arbitration, then court, with punishing daily fines until the aid was shipped. Union officers like Mills could be jailed.

In his novel, Mills expresses his determination through protagonist Steven Morrow: “Some fights are too important to give up on. God knows the people on Reagan and the junta’s side won’t give up, so we can’t either. The further we go, the more support we gain, the more we expose this government for who they really care about.” Like in 1978, the union would have to pressure the government into canceling the shipment.

Despite the uphill battle ahead, a groggy Morrow is reenergized: “The excitement of putting one over on the bosses — well, that’s the best cure for a hangover there is.”

And it is thrilling. Morrow sneaks photos of the cargo. He and his fellow workers invent elaborate diversions to buy time and distract the bosses, even as he navigates the everyday work of a union officer, responding to all-too-frequent health and safety violations and wage theft. There’s even some romance, too, as the widowed Morrow falls for a passionate photojournalist working as American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) communications aid. (This choice of Mill’s may be a bit of a stretch, as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy arm actually worked to undercut the FMLN in the 1980s. Then again, he does note that the federation “usually either sat on its hands or actively supported the reactionary foreign policy of the US government.” And it makes sense that the fictional Morrow would find a federation researcher who was on the right side of history.)

Morrow reaches out to religious leaders in the city who have been at the forefront of the burgeoning movement of solidarity with Central American liberation struggles and sanctuary for refugees. Together, they plan to stage a press conference and ceremony to bless the dockworkers and lend the moral high ground to their refusal.

Uncertain which ship the arms will ultimately be dispatched on, the union scrambles to prepare its press and social movement allies to rally support around the cause without alerting the bosses. Soon, news breaks of the murder of four North American churchwomen found raped and shot in El Salvador in what Eileen Markey describes as a “hastily dug grave at the edge of the Cold War.” The tragedy steels their resolve: “Screw the contract, screw the government, we can’t send these monsters one single solitary bullet.”

As this drama unfolds, additional international struggles demand the union’s attention. Morrow learns that South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae-Jung has been sentenced to death. The union sends wires calling for clemency and seeds diaspora groups with rumors that the ILWU will boycott South Korean ships if Kim is executed. Like the confrontation over El Salvador, this plot point turns on real events, and Mills’s intervention is largely credited for saving Kim’s life.

On December 22, the union goes public with the refusal. Tense negotiations with the bosses and the Defense Department follow. The government denies that the shipment contains weapons, but the union presents an exhaustive list of the arms contained in the cargo. Facing the credible threat of escalation and massive public outcry, the government folds and cancels the shipment.

Published posthumously, Presente is a testament to the commitments of a lifelong union activist who took his internationalism seriously. After successfully blocking the aid to El Salvador, Mills helped lead efforts to hold the regime of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos responsible for the brazen assassination of ILWU Local 37 officers Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, killed in their Seattle union hall on June 1, 1981. In 1984, his local boycotted a ship bound for apartheid South Africa for ten days. Retired in 1991, Mills crafted his autobiographical novel through careful research in his personal archive and union records, inspired to share the joys of solidarity and struggle with as broad an audience as possible.

As the United States backs Israel’s ghastly war of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people, the ILWU’s courageous action for El Salvador marks the standard against which today’s labor movement must be measured. The results are disappointing. Despite growing rank-and-file pressure, national leaders like the United Auto Workers’ Shawn Fain have blunted their courageous calls for a cease-fire by unequivocally endorsing Joe Biden. Even as port workers in India have refused to handle weapons for Israel, US unions have yet to risk much more than strong statements for the people of Gaza.

Facing perhaps the greatest moral crisis of our time, Mills’s legacy is a resounding call to action. It is not too late to heed it.