From San Francisco to Durban

Labor Action Against Racism & Apartheid

The following op-ed piece by Jack Heyman appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on 11 February, three days before ILWU Local 10 sponsored a “Racism, Repression and Rebellion” rally. Angela Davis, Martina Correia (Troy Davis' sister) and Robert Bryan (Mumia Abu-Jamal's lead attorney) were among the speakers at the event. In his remarks at the demonstration, Heyman pointed to the action by South African dockworkers in Durban, who boycotted Israeli cargo to protest Zionist terror in Gaza, as an important example for the entire labor movement. Inspired by the anti-apartheid action carried out by militants in Local 10 almost a quarter of a century earlier, the Durban boycott is both a model for future international labor solidarity initiatives in defense of the oppressed Palestinian people and an illustration of how an exemplary, class-conscious labor action can resonate long after it is over.


Some say this country has entered a post-racial period with the election of the first African American president. Yet, the New Year's Day killing of Oscar Grant III by BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] police was protested in Oakland by thousands who saw the shooting as racially motivated.

And this month, in Woodland (Yolo County), two black longshoremen, who were assaulted by police in 2007, will be going to trial. The longshoremen say that West Sacramento police, overzealously enforcing port security, attacked them. West Coast longshoremen are mobilizing to protest the arrest.

Just last week, dockworkers in Durban, South Africa protested what they called “apartheid Israel's massacres in Gaza” of Palestinians, refusing to offload the Israeli ship Johanna Russ and calling on dockworkers around the world to follow their act of solidarity. The South African dockworkers credited the San Francisco longshoremen's 1984 action against apartheid as their inspiration.

The San Francisco longshore union, Local 10, has a proud record of fighting racial injustice going back to the 1934 General Strike, organized in the wake of police killing two strikers. During that strike, the union integrated blacks into the local—decades before the Civil Rights Act. The strategy broke racial barriers, united maritime workers and helped to win the labor dispute.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has defended African Americans against racial discrimination beginning with Paul Robeson, the black American cultural icon known for his baritone voice and civil rights activities. Robeson was mercilessly pursued by the FBI and the CIA for his leftist views.

In 1971, the ILWU defended Angela Davis, then a Black Panther and target of an FBI investigation into the killing of a Marin County judge. She was later arrested, imprisoned, tried and found not guilty by an all-white jury. She is now a UC [University of California] Santa Cruz professor and frequent speaker against racist repression and the prison-industrial complex.

The death penalty, rooted in the legacy of slavery, shamefully remains an American institution. Ten years ago, the ILWU shut down West Coast ports to demand freedom for death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, also a former Black Panther, who the union members believe was framed for killing a Philadelphia police officer.

In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis faces execution for killing an off-duty policeman, although seven of the nine prosecution witnesses recanted, citing police coercion. Those calling for a new trial for Davis include former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the Pope and even former FBI director William S. Sessions. Yet the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed during the Clinton administration, makes it nearly impossible for him to get a new trial.

Last October, Local 10 President Melvin Mackay and 600,000 others sent letters to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles that temporarily stayed the execution of Davis. In the —70s and —80s, longshore unions in Southern ports effectively demonstrated in support of busing for integration and against South African apartheid. If they used that power today, they could save the life of an innocent black man.

Unions can turn the tide against racism and in favor of social justice.

It's going to take the might of the integrated union movement, linked to the struggle of blacks and immigrant workers, to turn the tide now.