ILWU to Shut Down West Coast Ports on Juneteenth in Solidarity with George Floyd Protesters

 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ports from Bellingham, Washington to San Diego, California, will not be processing cargo this Friday. Instead, workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are spending the day protesting police violence and racism.

“With the ILWU’s history of advocating for the end of police terror and violence we decided to put a call out,” said Trent Willis, president of the ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco.

The date is no accident. Friday is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Local 10, Local 34 and the African American Longshore Coalition pushed for the coordinated shutdowns this week.

“It is urgent that unions respond to the racist upsurge,” Willis and Keith Shanklin, president of Local 34, wrote in a letter to William Adams, national president of the ILWU. “In fact, it is a matter of life and death.” Adams is the first Black president of the ILWU.

Friday’s demonstration is the latest protest actions taken by the ILWU. Historically, dockworkers refused to process cargo from apartheid-South Africa throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The ILWU also led antiwar protests at the Port of Oakland in 2003, which turned violent and led to the arrest of several people. In 2008, workers shut down West Coast ports in protest of the war in Iraq.

Sponsored

The union’s history of protest and leftist politics dates back to its founding. Michael McCann, professor for the advancement of citizenship at the University of Washington said the approach marked an important shift in how unions saw their work.

“[The ILWU] understood that division along the lines of race only benefited employers, because it weakened the efforts of workers to act together and to organize together,” McCann said.

Early leaders at the ILWU like Harry Bridges recognized the need to overcome racial barriers and develop class solidarity among the workers.

The union, particularly Local 10 in San Francisco, has fought for racial equity since its inception in 1937. The foundation of the ILWU, grew out of an 83-day long strike that shut down ports across the West Coast and led to the 1934 General Strike in San Francisco. At a time when many other unions explicitly refused to organize black workers, or other workers of color, many, but not all, ILWU locals desegregated work gangs and included African American workers among its members.

“That represented a new kind of politics,” McCann said, one built on solidarity between the fight of working people and the fight for civil rights and racial equity.

Willis, the president of Local 10 in San Francisco, sees this week’s work stop as living up to the ILWU’s reputation and project as an organization.

“It was written into the original documents of our union to always oppress, in particular, racial hate and racial division between workers,” Willis said.

Focusing protest actions around work stops like what the ILWU has planned for Friday can be particularly powerful, says Harley Shaiken, professor of geography and education at UC Berkeley.

“There's nothing that captures the attention as much as an economic disruption,” he said. “They don't do this lightly and they don't use it often.”

On Friday, economic activity at ports up and down the West Coast will grind to a halt: shipping containers will wait for transport, trucks will lie idle. Demonstrators plan to meet for a rally at Middle Harbor Road and then march through downtown Oakland, gathering outside City Hall in the afternoon.