Bay Area Dockworkers Continue Decades of Fighting Oppression on Juneteenth

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, has a long history of anti-racism work in the Bay Area, including protesting against police violence.  (Steve Rhodes)

As protests around the country continue to call attention to systemic racism and police violence, this year’s Juneteenth is a reminder that the United States has a long way to go in truly reckoning with its history of white supremacy.

Longshore workers up and down the west coast are commemorating Juneteenth a day honoring when a group of enslaved people in Texas learned they were finally freed from slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — by shutting down a key part of the region's economy.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) chapters in San Francisco and Oakland will not handle cargo to stand in solidarity with all those protesting police violence and racism. This historic protest, however, is just one of the many actions the union has taken since its inception to address racial inequality and police violence.

“If you don't know why the Bay Area so liberal, if you don't know it has something to do with the long history of this union, you actually don't know the Bay Area nearly as well as you think,” says historian Peter Cole, author of "Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area."

The union's anti-racism work, including protesting police killings, dates back to the Great Depression era. On July 5, 1934, San Francisco police shot and killed two maritime workers who were participating in a strike against unsafe working conditions and unfair hiring practices.

Sponsored

Outrage over these killings led workers across industries to participate in a citywide general strike in support of the dockworkers.

While white longshore workers took to the picket lines, business owners hired replacement workers known as scabs or strikebreakers to work in their place. Many of them were African Americans who had been previously excluded from such jobs.

Activists soon realized they couldn’t win the strike without the solidarity of Black workers, says Cole. That’s when Harry Bridges, a leader within the union, made an appeal to the Black community. He offered a “new deal”: If Black workers joined the picket lines, they'd be welcomed and protected by the newly formed union.

“[Bridges] kept that promise," says retired longshore worker Clarence Thomas. His family was among the wave of Black men who joined the ranks after the union firmly decided to include Black workers. "And as a result of that San Francisco, ILWU local 10 is the only predominantly African-American longshore local on the West Coast."

The union's beginnings laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most radical, anti-racist unions in the country, says Cole. Throughout the decades, workers within the union have used their leverage to interrupt key economic activity in the Bay Area in the name of anti-racism.

Famously, in 1984, workers in San Francisco refused to unload South African cargo for 10 days to protest colonization in South Africa.

"That's actually a pivotal movement in the Bay Area anti-apartheid movement,” says Cole.

Then in 2009, when BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, the local union led a strike calling for justice and the prosecution of the Mehserle.

"If you really want to begin to impact capital in this country, you need workers," says Thomas. "And workers' greatest leverage is at the point of production. That's because when you stop working, production stops, and you get everyone's attention."