Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt No. 4

Selected documents on the 1984 Nedlloyd Kimberley Boycott - the whole pamphlet is also available online.

Originally published May 1985

Militant Longshoremen "Hot-Cargo" South African Goods

11-Day Anti-Apartheid Struggle On San Francisco Docks

For eleven days last fall the Nedlloyd Kimberley sat and rusted in San Francisco harbor as 300 longshoremen refused to touch the South African cargo on board. This dramatic act of militant labor solidarity with the embattled black masses of South Africa by members of Local 10 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) reverberated throughout the Bay Area, up and down the west coast and beyond. Many thousands of people were inspired by this demonstration of the power of working-class political action. Throughout the boycott, hundreds of opponents of apartheid rallied at the gates of Pier 80 to show their support for the longshoremen.

The action originated with a motion put forward at a Local 10 Executive Board meeting in October by External Tendency (ET) supporter Howard Keylor. The motion called for the local to refuse to touch the next ship which entered San Francisco carrying South African cargo and for Local 10’s officers to publicize and seek to spread the action. Keylor’s militant proposal was watered down at a subsequent membership meeting by Leo Robinson who amended it to make it a boycott of only the South African cargo aboard the ship. (A boycott of cargo on board a ship, as opposed to a boycott of the ship itself, means that the workers involved take the job from the hiring hail, board the ship and work as instructed, refusing only to touch the designated cargo. The Nedlloyd Kimberley carried some Australian cargo which the ILWU members unloaded. They only stopped work when they came to the South African goods. From then on, two gangs a day were dispatched to the ship, ordered to unload the "hot" cargo and then fired when they refused to do so.)

Robinson’s amendment was popular with the bulk or the membership because they thought that by giving the appearance of a non-union action (i.e. acts of conscience by the individuals involved), they could forestall legal action and extend the boycott over a period of days. This notion played into the hands of the officers of the largely black local who did not want to come out openly against the boycott but also didn’t want to have to take any responsibility for it. The Local 10 bureaucrats had no intention of spreading the boycott or engaging in any showdown with the courts if they could avoid it.

Keylor warned that Robinson’s amendment would, at best, only briefly delay the intervention of the arbitrator and the courts. He argued that if the union openly initiated a boycott of a ship with South African cargo, aggressively publicized it and attempted to spread it to other longshore locals (as his motion called for) it would be quite possible to both extend the boycott and generate the trade-union and public support which would enable the longshore division to successfully defy Reagan’s courts and arbitrators.

Keylor was unable to swing the vote and the amended motion passed overwhelmingly. Even though this was less than he had originally advocated, Keylor recognized that any longshore boycott of South African cargo was entirely supportable and so he threw himself into help in organize it.

Despite the limited nature of the action and the refusal of the local officers to openly take any responsibility for it, the political impact of the strike in its first few days was great enough to partially disorient the employers. They knew they had a potentially explosive situation and so they moved cautiously. It took ten days for them to decide what to do and go through the legal steps to get an injunction. Meanwhile support for the longshoremen grew as word spread.

Most of the ostensibly revolutionary left, as well as many of the Bay Area’s black organizations, enthused about the initiative shown by the militant dockers. Even the black congressional caucus got behind the boycott. Representative Charles Hayes of Illinois, who had been arrested at the South African embassy in Washington a few days earlier, gave a press conference at a noon-hour demonstration in front of the offices of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA—the employers’ association) on 28 November in an effort to help break a partial media blackout. Black Democrat Ron Dellums, a congressman from Oakland, sent a statement of solidarity and donated the time of several of his staff to help publicize the action.

How the Action was Organized

The publicity, organization and logistics of the action were handled by a united-front rank-and-file committee of Local 10 members. (The committee was expanded during the course of the strike to include several non-Local 10 members.) The politics represented in this body ranged from Keylor’s class-struggle program to black nationalism and Communist Party-style reformism. Many on the committee supported liberal divestment schemes. Some advocated protectionism. Many posed the action not in terms of proletarian class solidarity as Keylor did, but rather in terms of individual conscience. Nonetheless, despite the differences, the basis of unity was a commitment to "hot-cargoing" the South African goods aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley.

Militants in Local 10 actively sought to get in touch with contacts in other ports. The committee also held two special meetings prior to the arrival of the Nedlloyd Kimberley to build support for the action. Each meeting was attended by approximately 50 people representing left tendencies, community groups, solidarity committees and black organizations. Many of these people later played an important role in mobilizing for the demonstrations of outside support.

At a public forum held by the ET in Berkeley on December 1, at the height of the action, Keylor explained how it was organized:

"The very effort to get the boycott approved by the overwhelming, almost unanimous, membership of the longshoremen in this port was a united-front movement from the beginning where those of us who spoke on it and pushed it to some degree compromised on what we thought perhaps were better tactics or different tactics in order to get something that we knew that we had a chance of implementing. And the implementation of it, the rank-and-file committee, is a united front...That united front extends over to the officers [of Local 10] who we’re able to hold from gross betrayal...and be quiet while we do the best we can.

"So you have a series of overlapping united fronts so to speak, united fronts within united fronts, and then of course, it goes to the outside as you saw today. Pacifists, Democrats, ostensibly revolutionary organizations, peaceniks and what have you. It’s o.k. So you maintain the momentum of an action like this; maintain the morale of the workers and you maintain the united front.

"Sure, united fronts split, and this one’s going to split too. As soon as the injunction comes down, probably Monday…we’ll start seeing this series of overlapping united fronts splitting. You’ll see probably first the Democrats fading away. You’ll most certainly see many of the ostensibly revolutionary organizations fading away in this period....So the united front will split.

"Quite possibly even the rank-and-file committee that’s carrying it out will split. But we’re going to carry this action as far as we can and come what may, it’s a historic action when a group of workers carry out a political strike in this country."

The United Front Splits

On Monday, 3 December when the Executive Board of Local 10 was faced with a federal injunction, the united front did indeed split. The officers proposed a motion to capitulate. When a motion to openly defy the injunction (put forward by Spartacist League supporter Stan Gow and seconded by Keylor) was ruled out of order, Keylor put up another motion to call a special stop-work mass membership meeting at Pier 80 to decide how to respond to the injunction. This too was ruled out of order and the motion to scuttle the boycott passed with Keylor, Gow and two others opposed. (One executive board member later changed his vote and was officially recorded as also being opposed.) At this point the rank-and-file committee also split, as Keylor had predicted, with a majority (including Leo Robinson) deciding to go along with the executive board’s capitulation.

The next morning, Tuesday 4 December, Keylor and a handful of other militant longshoremen did what they could to rescue the action. Keylor appeared at the longshore hall at 6:00 a.m. where he addressed the men with a bullhorn and called on them to defy the feds. He then went down to Pier 80 where he organized supporters of the boycott into a militant picket line. This picket (which soon grew to a couple of hundred) succeeded in stopping traffic in and out of the pier for an hour. The tactic of militant picketing was opposed by the reformists of the Communist Party who wanted to turn the picket into an impotent protest demonstration. This led to some heated exchanges between the CPers and ET supporters and other militants who had closed the pier. The picket line was ultimately broken by the San Francisco cops (who made a couple of arrests) while Communist Party supporters shoved militants aside and waved traffic in and out.

The boycott was defeated—but for eleven days the South African cargo had been stopped cold. The key to victory, as well as the most effective counter to the attempts by Leo Robinson and the Communist Party to project the whole affair as the moral witnessing of a few individuals, lay in escalating the scope of the action through class-struggle tactics. Even a relatively small formation of a half-dozen or so class-conscious union members—like the Militant Caucus of a decade ago—properly organized, and functioning as the left wing of the bloc which carried out the boycott, could very well have initiated measures which would have extended and broadened the hot-cargoing to the point where the union could have defeated the employers and their courts.

The first step would have been contacting and attempting to organize the 300 longshoremen who volunteered for the dispatch and then refused to work the cargo. A larger active base of support in the local would have greatly increased pressure on both the local and the international bureaucrats to come out and officially sanction the boycott. It would also have made it possible to send delegates to other key ports where Nedlloyd ships dock to spread the action, as well as to more effectively mobilize outside support in the Bay Area. A few longshoremen in a couple of sound trucks cruising through the largely black community around the docks and a few more speaking at area campuses could have swelled the hundreds of supporters who turned out at the pier into thousands. A class-struggle caucus would also have sought to mobilize support for the action from other Bay Area unions, simultaneously deepening the trade-union axis of the cargo boycott and popularizing the idea of working-class political strike action.

The Ignominious Role of the Spartacist League

During the course of the boycott, the formerly Trotskyist Spartacist League took a break from playing "Red Avengers" on campus to come down to Pier 80 where they provided a textbook example of impotent, left-posturing, sectarian wrecking. Having done nothing to initiate or build the action, the SL and a few of its trade-union supporters turned up the first night the company ordered gangs for the Nedlloyd Kimberley and demanded that the dockers forget about the cargo boycott and instead boycott the whole ship. To enforce this, the SL threw up a "picket line" with two longshoremen and a dozen or so other SL supporters which was designed to prevent the twenty-five (mainly black) militant unionists (all of whom had purposely taken the dispatch to ensure that the cargo boycott was enforced) from boarding the ship. This so enraged many of the longshoremen that there was considerable sentiment to forcibly remove the SL’s "picket line." Fortunately for the SLers, Keylor and others managed to diffuse this sentiment. When the longshoremen went in to implement the boycott, the SL supporters proclaimed that they were "scabbing"!

Like the Stalinist Communist Party during the 1934 Trotskyist-led teamster strikes in Minneapolis, the SL was so blinded by factional malice that it was incapable of orienting correctly to the events at Pier 80, or even telling the truth about them in hindsight. We recognize that it must have been galling for the SL leadership to see the most important political strike in at least a decade in the U.S. take place in a city where the SL has its flagship local, in an industry where it once had a substantial base and to see it led, in part, by its arch-rival, the External Tendency. It was clear that many of the SL cadres at the pier were uncomfortable with and confused by their organization’s refusal for almost a week to participate in, or even critically support, the action. (Eventually the SL recognized reality to the extent of changing its line and giving the action grudging support.)

Since the end of the boycott, Workers Vanguard has made several attempts to rationalize the Spartacist League’s shameful role. WV’s initial account (7 December) was so convoluted that readers could not make head nor tail of what was supposed to have happened. The passages denouncing Keylor and the ET were clear enough, at least in intent, but the story just didn’t hang together. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to notice this, so another account of the same events had to be cranked out three months later (WV No. 374, 8 March). This one was just as full of falsifications and distortions as the first one but it appeared to be more internally consistent—at least for those readers who didn’t know any better.

WV now "hails" the initiative shown by the militants in Local 10 even as it continues to slander the initiator. This retrospective enthusiasm contrasts starkly with the SL’s attempts to wreck the boycott while it was going on. Paper will indeed take anything that’s written on it, as WV’s coverage of the events at Pier 80 demonstrates, but editor-in-chief Wilner and his stable of hacks will have trouble selling their version to any of the hundreds of activists who supported the boycott or the longshoremen who carried it out.

What’s My Line?

The following exchange took place at Pier 80 on Wednesday, 28 November between Tom Riley of the ET and SL supporters Sam H. and Pepe. In the course of the proceeding discussion, after persistent questioning by Riley, Sam H. stated flatly that "We are not supporting this [the boycott] at all." (This remained the stance of the SL and its co-thinkers until Friday, 30 November when they suddenly reversed themselves and decided that it was supportable after all.) Sam H. predicted that "the bureaucrats are going to knuckle under" and argued that therefore the SL had been correct to counterpose its own "picket line" to the official union action from the outset. Riley replied that the ET regarded the cargo boycott as supportable and would only attempt to counterpose itself to the official Local 10 decision in the event of an attempt to scuttle the action by the bureaucrats and/or elements of the rank-and-file committee.

Tom R.: "We will throw up a picket line. We are willing to split on that."

Sam H.: "You will not."

Tom R.: "We will contravene the official union decision [if bureaucrats fold]."

Pepe: "Oh yeah, we’ll see."

Sam H.: "You’ll only do it if it’s following the CP."

Tom R.: "Well, if the CP is in on it, that’s fine too. Are you guys going to be in on it?"

Sam H.: "We’ll be in on it."

Tom R.: "Okay, we’ll have a united front on it."

Six days later, when the bureaucrats (and a majority of the rank-and-file committee) knuckled under, and ET supporters and other militants set up a picket line which blocked the pier for an hour, the SL (contrary to Sam’s expectation) refused to participate.


Local 10 Shows the Way!

(The following article is excerpted from Militant Longshoreman No. 13, 7 January 1985, published by Howard Keylor in Local 10 of the ILWV.)

Our eleven-day boycott of South African cargo has done this local proud. We pointed the way to effective international labor solidarity by reviving the "hot cargo" tactic. The unions used this tactic throughout the organizing drives of the 1930s and the bitter battles in 1946-48 to isolate struck employers. By refusing to transport or handle cargo from an anti-union employer workers even thousands of miles away and at widely dispersed locations could exert pressure to help other unions or oppressed workers. That’s why the infamous Taft-Hartley law passed in 1947 made "secondary boycotts" illegal. Our dramatic and effective action brought hundreds down to the docks in our support. We won the admiration of tens of thousands, showing that when the labor movement acts against apartheid, the black community and trade unionists will rally to its support. We sparked a wave of anti-apartheid protests in the Bay Area which are still continuing, and we proved that concrete labor solidarity can have vastly greater impact than picketing embassies. Our union’s action was the longest political strike in memory on the West Coast. When the next ship carrying South African cargo comes in; if Reagan invades Nicaragua; or the next time the bosses try to break a union like PATCO or the Hotel and Restaurant workers, we should wage a solidarity strike again, appealing to other unions to join us in mass strike action. Actions which defend other workers give us strength and make real the ILWU motto "An Injury to One is An Injury to All."

At the same time, we should face squarely the shortcomings in the boycott, particularly since the local is about to elect its officers for the next year. The South African cargo was finally unloaded, the local lost PGP [pay guarantee], ILWU-IBU member Jack Heyman was suspended by Crowley Maritime for approximately two weeks as a result of his participation in the embargo, and Local 10 is under a preliminary injunction which will be used against us when we act again.

We Could Have Defeated the Injunction

None of this had to happen. If Local 10 had officers and an Executive Board worthy of our fighting membership, officers willing to risk jail if necessary, we could have won outright. From the moment the membership voted to act, our officers should have been inviting union and community support and publicly demanding that International President Herman sanction the action and extend it coastwise. Instead, our officers were telling the media that our action was unauthorized and individual. Our officers should have sent delegations to the other ports to meet with other local officials and to appeal directly to all longshoremen to refuse to work the blood-stained cargo. When PMA proposed to unload the Nedlloyd Kimberley in Stockton, Local 54 told them to go to hell. With support like that, and backed by the thousands of Bay Area residents who wished us success, we could have defeated the injunction, like we did at Levin. Instead, the officers and the Executive Board caved in and ordered us to work the Nedlloyd Kimberley.

Make no mistake about it: the PMA and the capitalist government were scared. They recognize how deeply black Americans feel about the oppression in South Africa and how popular our union action was. That’s the main reason why they were so slow in arbitrating and in imposing an injunction, and that’s why so far the fines/damages have been suspended. When the continuing rebellion of the black trade unions and the South African masses stirs us to act collectively again, it is precisely that community support, properly organized in our defense, and spread to other unions which can help us smash the injunction.

Some union members, particularly Brothers Leo Robinson and his closest supporter, Dave Steward, who played an important role in the boycott, honestly believe that Local 10 had no choice but to give in to the injunction. The difference here is that they don’t understand that the working class’ ability to stop the economic machinery of the capitalist system and their government makes us uniquely powerful, whether in the U.S. or in South Africa. Leo and Dave have a commitment to individual acts of consciousness and a belief that community action can force the multinational corporations to forego their enormous profits extracted from the superexploited black South African workers. This belief is combined with a lack of confidence that the organized labor movement can lead political struggles to victory, and can be won to successfully defy and defeat government/court repression.

For the same reason, during contract fights over the past ten years Brother Leo Robinson, in particular, has failed to go beyond calling for a no vote, and has refused to advocate organizing coast-wide strike action to defeat bad contracts and get what we need.

People’s World No-Win Strategy

If Leo and Dave want to engage in something more effective than symbolic acts of protest, they should reexamine their strategy and especially that of their allies around Archie Brown and the People’s World. Their strategy of pressuring the liberal Democratic wing of the capitalist class rather than trying to overturn the capitalist system has led the working class to disastrous defeats for the past 50 years. The People’s World supporters played a large role in sabotaging an attempt to continue the boycott by other means after the local Executive Board had agreed Monday night, December 3, to capitulate to the injunction. When I and others encouraged the several hundred supporters present at Pier 80 Tuesday morning to set up an effective picket line and shut down the pier, Franklin Alexander panicked the crowd by telling them that they faced six months in jail. People’s World supporters acted in conjunction with the SFPD [San Francisco Police Department] to open up the picket line when we had the trucks stopped and the pier effectively closed. They managed to turn the picket line into an impotent demonstration, and thereby destroyed it.

Jimmy Herman Stabs Local 10 in the Back—Again!

International President Jim Herman should be thrown out of office for his back-stabbing. During the Levin strike, he sided with the employers. During the ILWU-IBU tankerman’s strike, he ordered longshoremen to cross the picket line. During the South African boycott he agreed with the PMA that our action was an "illegal work stoppage" in violation of the contract, and thereby Herman laid the legal basis for PMA being able to get their apartheid injunction. Recently, in describing Herman’s disapproval of cargo boycott actions, the Pacific Shipper (December 24, 1984), an employers’ magazine, said: "Despite the fact that it was a local of his union that ignited the controversy in the Bay Area, Mr. Herman believes that the ‘proper place’ for demonstrations against South African apartheid are at that nation’s consulates, or by way of organized public demonstrations of limited duration." We haven’t noticed him getting arrested along with the other labor "leaders." While all actions against the apartheid regime are welcome, particularly those in support of the labor movement, it’s clear that many of the congressmen, clergymen and labor bureaucrats picketing the embassy are motivated by a desire to clean up the image of the Democratic Party after the Mondale fiasco.

Divestment and Protectionism

As I said in Militant Longshoreman No. 12:

"Some brothers favor a policy of divestment of shares of corporations which invest in South Africa. Personally I regard this as ineffective and potentially even counterproductive. It also creates the illusion that the big banks and investment houses, which make billions of dollars of blood-money from the racist exploitation of black labor in South Africa, can be pressured into becoming friends of the black masses in that racist hell-hole. The only kind of ‘divestment’ which I’m interested in pushing is the divestment of the white supremacist rulers and their international investors by the black workers of South Africa and the establishment of a black-centered [workers] government.

"Protectionism is another issue where there are differences. Some brothers think that we shouldn’t unload South African steel because so many American steel workers are laid off. This action is aimed solely at providing a blow against the apartheid regime. That is why we shouldn’t unload that steel. The answer to the unemployment of U.S. steel workers is not to side with the shareholders of U.S. Steel, etc., to export unemployment, and thus divide American workers from workers of other countries. It is by fighting with steel workers and other sections of the labor movement against the banks and the corporations for a shorter work week at no loss in pay. Nonetheless, despite my differences with other members of the committee on these and other questions, we can all agree to work together to build this fight and spread it coastwise."

Stan Gow Calls Longshoremen "Scabs"

Finally, Stan Gow merits special mention. As ILWU members are aware, Stan and I worked together for years. Until now, I have urged longshoremen to vote for him despite my criticisms because on paper his program was largely correct. However, his actions during the boycott have drawn the line. Together with Peter Woolston and other Militant Caucus supporters in Local 6, and fully backed by the Spartacist League, Stan did everything he could to divide, confuse and disrupt our action.

We noted in Militant Longshoreman No. 4 that Stan and the Militant Caucus had begun to abandon their orientation to the organized working class. During his El Salvador stunt Stan substituted himself for the union with his one-longshoreman picket line, a sign of growing disorientation and disbelief that union members could be won to action. But at least he was on the right side on the El Salvador question, and I defended him. Now his actions served to split and confuse the most important political strike in years.

On Saturday night, November 24, he and a handful of others picketed the Nedlloyd Kimberley despite the membership’s decision to work the Australian cargo. When Keylor originally opened the discussion on the South African boycott he urged that longshoremen refuse to work the ship, but when it became clear that the overwhelming majority consensus of the membership was to not work the South African cargo, he found that quite supportable, and actively worked to make the boycott a success. Stan says that’s "treachery!" Success is treachery! Sabotage is militance! Stan and the Militant Caucus attempted to counterpose their fake-militant picket line to the real activity of the union. Stan and his friends were aiming to split the union action that should have been automatically supported by all genuine labor militants. In fact, the Militant Caucus and Spartacist supporters became so deranged that they called the unionists who came out to carry out the South African boycott "scabs," and those in the crowd who were supporting them "racists." Stan’s attitude was: adopt my program or I spit on you—even though you’ve stopped the South African cargo cold. Then when the injunction came down, after a lot of bluster about defying the injunction, Stan and his cohorts refused to join the picket line which I and many others had established in order to try to force the Nedlloyd Kimberley to leave port.

Stan makes much of the difference between working the cargo and working the ship. Why? He knows it’s just a matter of tactics. The membership decided on what they thought would be most effective. After two days the ship sat perfectly idle anyway. In 1974 the union refused to handle Chilean cargo but worked the ship. Stan and I helped to initiate the action and considered it a real victory. In 1977 we argued for more extensive action but still supported and helped build the South African cargo boycott. What’s new this time?

Slanders and Lies

Similarly Stan accused the union, and me in particular, of treachery around the Nedlloyd Kyoto off-loading pig iron at Richmond Yard 1. First of all, the ship was diverted, and we didn’t know it was arriving until two hours prior to starting work. Secondly, when you are planning a battle, you pull it where you are strongest. The ILWU has full and uncontested jurisdiction at Pier 80, San Francisco. At Richmond/Levin we had to wage an all out battle just to reestablish our toehold, and the right to ghost riders when the dockside cranes are used. If we had had sufficient time we could have appealed to the Operating Engineers to stop the cargo at Levin’s, but in San Francisco we were able to rely on our own forces. Without adequate preparation the local’s action could very easily have ended as unsuccessfully as Stan’s isolated attempts.

What lies behind this sorry story is that Stan’s Militant Caucus has given up on the working class. In 1974 and 1977, during the Chile cargo boycott and the first South African cargo boycott, Stan, the Militant Caucus and the Spartacist League played a principled role in trying to support the ILWU action and extend it coastwise. This time, shamefully, they tried to wreck it. No vote for Stan Gow.

Letter from South Africa

"I am deeply impressed..."

The following letter from a black South African trade-union leader arrived during the boycott of the Nedlloyd Kimberley and was read out in the Local 10 dispatch hail. It is a powerful testimony to the enormous international significance of such exemplary trade-union solidarity actions.

26 November 1984

"...I am deeply impressed by your compassion, solidarity, love for the underdog, the oppressed, exploited masses of our land. Your contribution, dedication and determination for social change is indeed a morale booster for me and the millions of our brothers and sisters who continue to face the armed might of the South African government through the barrel of the gun. Botha’s new constitution is shedding more and more blood. And mind you, this is only the beginning. I shudder to think what is going to happen next year when the constitutional apparatuses are in motion.

"The Rajbansis, Reddys and Hendrickas have remained silent at the detention of our leaders. They now become co-responsible for all acts perpetrated by this government. With economic recession hitting us so badly, thousands of our people continue to get retrenched and to live in poverty. The streets in Soweto and in the Vaal Triangle have turned into battlefields. Thousands of school-children are on boycott refusing to accept Bantu Education and the high rent increases which are burdening an already impoverished community....

"I am terribly sorry for not responding formally to your call. There were some problems...."

Hot-Cargo Apartheid!

(The following resolution, put forward by Howard Keylor, was passed by Local 10 in March and sent to the ILWU convention. The bureaucracy prevented it from getting to the floor.)

WHEREAS: The South African government recently arrested the leading activists of the anti-apartheid movement, including United Democratic Front and trade-union leaders, charging them with treason. If convicted they face the death penalty; and

WHEREAS: Labor has the power to strike a major blow against the racist Botha regime by cutting off trade with South Africa; and

WHEREAS: Local 10 led the way by carrying out a successful eleven-day boycott of South African cargo in the port of San Francisco in November/December 1984; and

WHEREAS: Local 10 was isolated and the boycott ended under court injunction, and this injunction could have been defeated if all ILWV longshore locals and other transport unions had followed suit and expanded the boycott;


RESOLVED: That during the month of May no ILWU local will handle cargo to or from South Africa, demanding the release of the arrested UDF and trade-union leaders and the dismissal of all charges against them, AND BE IT FURTHER

RESOLVED: That all ILWU locals will organize and work to persuade other unions to join us in this boycott.

A Letter to Workers Vanguard

Third Period Robertsonism at Pier 80

The letter to Workers Vanguard from Mike Anton, Chris Knox and Jeff Hayden which we publish here sets the record straight on the Spartacist League’s appalling role throughout the South African cargo boycott in San Francisco. Hayden and Anton were both trade-union fraction heads in the Spartacist League. Knox was a long-time SL leader and was the national trade-union director through most of the 1970s. He was one of the architects of the SL’s trade-union implantation and also the author of many of the key articles on the history of Trotskyist trade-union work published in Workers Vanguard.

Their letter points out that the SL-supported Longshore Militant (19 November) provided the crucial evidentiary material for the maritime employers’ injunction which ended the action. One point which they omit, however, is that the SL supporters knew perfectly well what they were doing when they published their report of the Local 10 boycott motion. This was the only ILWU-associated documentary material which the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) could lay its hands on which mentioned the motion. Such evidence was critical for the PMA to pin responsibility on the local for violating the terms of the contract and the Taft-Hartley law. To cover its perfidy Longshore Militant claimed that Local 10 president Larry Wing had already blown the action by sending a letter to Indies Terminals in Oakland "notifying the company of the union’s proposed action." This is not only a lie (for no such letter was ever sent) but also a particularly inept one. It was public knowledge on the waterfront at the time that Nedlloyd Lines had rescinded their contract with Indies Terminals and was moving to San Francisco!

To date the authors have received no answer.

27 January 1985
Workers Vanguard
Editorial Board

Dear Comrades,

As active participants in support of the recent longshore "hot cargo" boycott of South African goods in San Francisco, we have followed WV coverage of this event with interest. In No. 369 (21 December 1984), you state,

"When Bay Area longshoremen, despite the victimization by maritime bosses and sabotage by union tops and their ‘left’ flunkeys, refuse to unload South African cargo which sat in the SF harbor for ten days, this must fortify black toilers suffering under the U.S.-backed apartheid police state."

Your lengthier analysis began by "saluting" the longshoremen for refusing "to move South African cargo on the Kimberley" ("Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship," No. 368, 7 December 1984). How is it that the actions of SL supporters on the scene never reflected the view that this was a supportable action, and in fact conveyed the exact opposite message in no uncertain terms?

We are former supporters of the Spartacist League who in the past were involved in a leading way, in one capacity or another, in trade-union work on the basis of the Trotskyist program as then espoused by the SL. We are amazed by the public coverup of the scurrilous actions, not to mention flip-flops, taken by SL supporters during the boycott. Trotskyists historically have always been for a true reflection of the vanguard organization’s actions in its press. This the SL has apparently abandoned.

The facts may come as a surprise to most readers of Workers Vanguard, who are accustomed to being able to believe what they read there, whether or not they agree with it. Perhaps if the late Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter hailed by WV for his honesty, had been doing your reporting, at least it would have been accurate.

A very close reading of WV coverage indeed is required to discern that the motion which began this historic labor action was made by ILWU exec board member Howard Keylor, a supporter of the External Tendency of the iSt (ET)—an opponent of the SL who is generally maligned throughout WV’s coverage. Keylor’s motion to refuse to work the next Nedlloyd line ship to hit port passed the exec and was referred to the Local 10 membership. There it was watered down by an amendment put up by Leo Robinson, that only the South African cargo not be touched. Belying the SL’s later actions, the favorable membership decision on this watered-down motion was hailed by WV as "concrete union action in defense of South Africa’s embattled black toilers," and an "opportunity" which longshoremen "must seize...and fight to stop all shipping for the South African apartheid butchers" ("Longshoremen: ‘Hot-Cargo’ South African Apartheid Butchers!" WV No. 365, 26 October 1984, emphasis yours).

As in the similar anti-apartheid boycott by longshoremen in 1977, an action which the SL supported, this action had been limited to one of "hot-cargoing," rather than striking the whole ship, through the intervention of misleadership. The action would have been stronger had picketing the ship been decided upon, or better yet, picketing the whole pier complex (which would have tied up other ships until the Nedlloyd ship departed unworked). But as any reader of WV knows, "hot-cargoing" is an acceptable and supportable action of labor solidarity. In such situations, revolutionists seek to expose the misleadership by united-fronting the action, that is by showing, from the standpoint of being the best supporters of the workers engaged in the concrete struggle, how the misleadership weakens and lays plans to betray the action. This scenario repeats itself in every strike—in every concerted action by workers against the capitalist class—which is not already led by revolutionary leadership. Lenin aggressively fought for such tactics, because it is in this way that the revolutionists can become the leadership of the working class as a whole. This is where the SL, unable to admit it, shamefully departs from Leninism.

As a result of their union decision, longshoremen went to work on the dock with the understanding that they would only work the non-South African cargo. At the beginning, SL supporters were strangely non-interventionist, not trying to speak, and not even selling WV at the first rally at Pier 80 that began support for the action (Friday, 23 November). Then on Saturday evening, a handful of SL-backed trade unionists set up their own "picket line," making no attempt to change the union tactic beforehand. All who "crossed" this "picket"—including the longshore militants going onto the dock to carry out the boycott—were denounced as "scabs" by SL supporters!

While the longshoremen were working Australian cargo on the ship, an SL supporter was asked whether it mattered if the longshoremen worked the South African cargo or not, since the action at that point, according to the SL, had been "sabotaged" by "scabbing." He said, "They’ll work the [South African] cargo." A long-time SL-backed trade-unionist then said, "Given what happened, this action is not supportable." As the longshoremen were fired from the job for refusing to touch the South African cargo, they were cheered as they came through the gate by all the numerous supporters, except the SL.

WV readers are forced to read between the lines—and still can’t figure out what the SL was really up to. In "Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship," you state that the misleaders of this action from day one "refused to throw up a union picket." Has the SL forgotten that picket lines mean don’t cross? In order to carry out the "hot-cargoing" action they had decided upon, longshoremen had to be on the Kimberley. You then quote a Longshore Militant, which says that, "After Keylor and Robinson worked them over for a half-hour, the men were reluctantly persuaded it was for the good of the union to cross the [SL-initiated] picket line." But nowhere does the article repeat the SLers’ slanderous characterization of those who "crossed" as "scabs," nor acknowledge that it was even made!

The entire article is rife with fabrications on the question of this spurious picket. Gang 35 didn’t go in Saturday morning because it hadn’t been completely filled and it was ordered not to by the union bureaucrats, not because the men "refused to touch" the ship. While it may be true that many longshoremen refused to take dispatch to the Kimberley, WV ignores the fact that some of the best militants in the union were taking the dispatch in order to make sure that the boycott was effectively implemented, and not sabotaged by more backward elements. We saw no "working over" of the men to go in by Keylor, because there was none. Actually, Keylor had to restrain some longshoremen who wanted to trash the "picket line." Finally, the SL-initiated "picket" had exactly two longshoremen on it, and got virtually no support from the large numbers of boycott supporters present. If there was such a groundswell in the union ranks against the tactics decided upon and for the SL’s position, as WV implies, why wasn’t there a real showing by the ranks on the picket? And where were the militant longshoremen ready to "work over" anyone who wanted to go in, and convince them not to?

The SL supporters in fact made no effort to mobilize longshore militants for their action, nor was their any reason to expect that it would be honored. With significant numbers of determined union members, SL-backed unionists possibly could have seized leadership of the action on the spot by picketing, and changed the tactics to more militant ones. Revolutionists do not always stick to official union channels when an opportunity to raise the level of struggle presents itself. However, this action was not that—it was a cynical maneuver in which the SL tried to substitute its own small band of immediate supporters for the union.

There is unfortunately more to this gruesome, but true, tale. We cannot emphasize too strongly that for six days following the SL-initiated "picket"—i.e., throughout most of the boycott action hailed and "saluted" by WV both before and afterwards—we were unable to obtain any statement of support for the action from anyone associated with the SL. This is because there was no support! The longshore militants had, after all, been turned into "scabs" by the SL’s magic wand...until the following Friday, that is, when a new issue of Longshore Militant appeared. Finally, the action was again rendered supportable, albeit "minimal and tokenist." And what of the charge of "scabbing"? Like WV, Longshore Militant chose to remain silent. To this day, that charge has not been acknowledged in print or retracted by you at all! Yet there were far too many witnesses for you to deny it.

This "minimal and tokenist" action drew a support rally of over 500 at 7:00 a.m. at Pier 80 on the following Saturday, 1 December. While there were many ministers and liberals pledging to go to jail, etc., there were also union activist speakers of varying degrees of militancy. The best called for defiance of the expected court injunction against the action, then in its eighth day. One militant and former SL supporter from the Inland Boatmens Union [IBU], an ILWU affiliate, spoke of the need for similar action, up to and including a port shutdown, when Reagan invades Nicaragua. He pointed out that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, and called for a workers party based on the trade unions. SL supporters were there in force, this time unsuccessfully trying to address the rally (while the hated ET fought against SL supporters’ bureaucratic exclusion from the podium by Robinson & Co.)—and yet there is not a word in WV on any of this!

When the injunction did come down three days later, it was no surprise that the Local 10 exec board, with Leo Robinson’s blessing, called for cowardly compliance. The following morning, Stan Gow and other SL supporters, without taking back the charge of "scabbing," nevertheless joined with Howard Keylor and other militants in calling for defiance of the injunction. This took place in the ILWU hall. Only an hour or so later down at the dock, however, the story was considerably different.

From the back of a flatbed truck which had been stopped by pickets, Keylor and others called on the 200-strong anti-apartheid demonstrators to defy the injunction. Opposing this class-struggle determination were Communist Party supporters who spoke in support of the exec board’s capitulation. Meanwhile, the SFPD [San Francisco Police Department] was shoving pickets from in front of trucks waiting to enter the pier. Only one truck made it through in over an hour. At one point a longshoreman who had joined the picket was arrested, and other longshoremen who were waiting in anticipation just inside the gate refused to budge until he was released. The militancy of the picket was eventually broken when CP supporters went into action alongside the cops, shoving and herding demonstrators away from the path of the trucks.

During the entire morning’s picket, however, the SL was shamefully abstentionist. SL supporters, Stan Gow and Ritchie Bradley in particular, refused to address the demonstrators, and even refused to join the line! WV was sold on the picket, but when questioned as to whether they were part of the picket line, the salesmen refused to answer. SL supporters were seen inside the gate, and their signs remained in plastic bags on the sidelines! By their abstention, SL supporters were in a de facto bloc with the CP to sabotage the picket. And once again, there is nothing in WV on any of this! Militants can only conclude from SL abstention during this, the real picket, that while "Labor’s got to play hardball to win," the fondest desire of the SL is to warm its backsides in the bleachers.

This criminal record of abstention, zig-zags, scandalous accusations and impotent stunts is still not the whole story on the SL and the boycott. Howard Keylor and Leo Robinson were both named as co-conspirators in the injunction, which used the SL-supported Longshore Militant as exhibit no. 1, state’s evidence. In the middle of this militant act of international working-class solidarity, which WV finds "fortifying" to the victims of apartheid terror, SL supporters did not even exhibit the elementary trade-union common sense to phrase their propaganda defensively, so that it could not be used by the PMA bosses against the union! And in a most despicable footnote to the action, SL supporters blamed the loss of the longshoremen’s pay guarantee (PGP) on Howard Keylor to other longshoremen, and even claimed Keylor made money by tieing up the Nedlloyd Kimberley and Kyoto! These are bald-faced lies, indicative of the levels to which the SL will now stoop to discredit an opponent.

A weird final twist to your tortured path was provided by leading SL public spokesman Al Nelson, when he said at an SL public forum after the event that the boycott action had been a "victory!" It was the longest political boycott on this coast in over 30 years, a significant blow which sparked other protests as well as pointing the way toward working-class solidarity with black workers of South Africa, rather than moral posturing and embassy sit-ins—all facts which seemed to escape Nelson and your other supporters at the time. However, it could not be called a victory, since it was broken in the end by the PMA and Reagan’s courts, through bureaucratic betrayal by the ILWU union tops.

After yourselves providing the main evidentiary material for the injunction, and then blaming Keylor for the loss of the PGP, it is dishonest in the extreme for you to state that "Leo Robinson, Howard Keylor & Co." were "setting up the individual longshoremen" by making the action a matter of "individual conscience" in order "not to jeopardize the contract in the face of the PMA’s hard line" ("Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship," emphasis yours). While Keylor, unlike your supporters, did attempt to avoid victimization of the union and its members as much as possible in the course of a political action, he was clearly and openly for union action throughout—as at the initial support rally on 23 November, where he spoke for extending the boycott up and down the coast. It was chiefly Robinson who foisted the liberal "personal conscience" line, which WV correctly denounces, onto the ranks. Perhaps part of the reason for the SL’s abysmal ignorance of Keylor’s real role was your supporters’ abstentionist refusal to be on the ad hoc union committee charged with implementing the boycott.

Your sickeningly repetitious lumping of "Robinson/Keylor" is most dramatically belied, of course, by the fact that Keylor fought for defying the injunction, while Robinson capitulated. But your attitude of petty rivalry with Keylor and the ET blinds you to the facts completely. When Stan Gow issues a clarion call for shutting down the port against employer victimization, you report it in glowing terms; but when Keylor calls for defying the injunction, to you it is [calling] for continuing the charade" (WV No. 368)! And while the watered-down version of the motion initiating the boycott was hailed by you as "concrete union action" when it passed Local 10, Keylor’s more militant original motion was a "modest proposal for nice words and ‘publicity’ rather than determined union action" (WV No. 365, emphasis yours). You can’t have it both ways, comrades.

Indeed, your chief motivation throughout this event seemed to have nothing to do with international working-class solidarity with the black toilers of South Africa, or even with showing how the action was weakened and endangered by betrayal and misleadership within the ILWU leadership; since SL actions were focused almost entirely on finding new ways to "expose" (read "get") Howard Keylor and, to a lesser extent, various other former SL supporters. Even your interest in the much more vulnerable Leo Robinson seemed to be mainly to use him as a brush with which to smear Keylor. In general, SL intervention in this event reminded one more of the paparazzi or the New York red squad than a left organization, as squadrons of SL photographers and people with tape recorders were mobilized to catch the ET or some other target in some unprincipled action or statement. This might be acceptable if your own actions were principled, and this opponent-hunting was secondary to them, but neither was the case.

This petty sectarianism is a marked departure from SL actions around longshore boycotts historically. A year after the coup in Chile which brought the butcher Pinochet to power, the SL called for implementing a two-day ban on Chilean transport called by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), despite the fact that this limited call was "only a promising beginning" ("Hot Cargo Military Goods to Chile!" WV No. 53, 27 September 1974). In this action, an SL-initiated, united-front picket line in Los Angeles was removed when the longshoremen who were honoring it were faced with a direct order from then ILWU-head Harry Bridges to go to work on the ship. Thus despite strong sentiment in the ranks for the boycott and the need for strong union action against the Chilean cargo, longshoremen who thought under the circumstances that they had no alternative but to go to work were not put in the position of having to cross a picket line.

South Africa was the focus when in 1977 Stan Gow and Howard Keylor, acting together and backed by the SL, called for implementing a similar "token" boycott call by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), even though the ILWU leadership under Jimmy Herman intervened to make sure that whatever action did happen—and these bureaucrats were trying to avoid having any—would be limited to the South African cargo, while other cargo on the ship was worked (WV No. 142, 28 January 1977).

While covering up the sectarian crimes of SL supporters in San Francisco, WV becomes opportunist when discussing distant events in which no close opponents of the SL are involved. In "Australian Dockers Hot-Cargo Ship to South Africa" (WV No. 364, 12 October 1984), you hail reformist-led unions in Australia for putting 24- or 48-hour bans on South African ships. How is it that the indefinite boycott in San Francisco is "minimal and tokenist," and its militants called "scabs," while these temporary protest actions led by cynical if somewhat left-posturing Stalinists, are uncritically supportable?

Against these examples, the excuses we heard from SL supporters for your non-support to the boycott were ludicrous and damning. You allegedly did not participate, for instance, because there were Stalinists on the committee charged with running the boycott! You also were not involved because the action was being carried out on the flawed basis of "personal conscience," and thus there was a danger of victimization! And the reason you supported the anti-apartheid boycott of 1977, but not the 1984 version, was purportedly that the black unions of South Africa were just beginning then! Does this mean these unions do not need international labor solidarity now? As we said, the SL’s chief concern in this action lay elsewhere.

SL members and supporters everywhere must ask themselves: why this abstentionism, why the abandonment of elementary Leninist tactics, why the dishonesty and criminal fingering of opponents to the bourgeois state? Why did the SL try to substitute itself in classic third-period Stalinist fashion, instead of struggling within the action/union to change the tactics and replace the leadership? The SL has long been accused of "sectarianism" by its reformist opponents for defending its Trotskyist program. But here, your supporters abandoned the program, and earned Lenin’s characterization of "an infantile disorder." Your supporters also earned the distrust of the best militants in the longshore union, some 300 of whom took part in this action. After so many years of hard principled work, your recent bizarre departures from Trotskyism have helped set back for years the struggle for class-struggle leadership in Local 10. Ultimately, it is the SL-backed trade unionists themselves who will pay the biggest price for this cynical political maneuvering.

The SL’s errors in the San Francisco boycott were unfortunately not an isolated glitch in an otherwise solidly Trotskyist machine, but part of an expanding pattern of political departures destabilizing and changing the organization’s political course. Instead of mobilizing students to come down to the docks in support of the boycott (with critical awareness of its leadership weaknesses, of course), the SL/SYL pursues "Red Avengers" fantasies on campus, where it voluntarily surrenders time to speak in its own defense, and changes its line on student fees with blithe disregard of its own history. Zig-zagging to the right, the SL proffers defense to the Democratic Party convention against an imaginary Reaganite coup, and finds a historically unique excuse to place a Marxist label on pleading for the lives of elite imperialist occupation troops ("Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!"). And under the banner of the "Yuri Andropov Brigade," it virtually tosses Trotsky’s call for political revolution to overthrow the Kremlin bureaucracy out the window (but it can still use the presence of Stalinists as an excuse for abstentionism!).

These errors point, in our opinion, at nothing less than the abandonment by the SL of the struggle for revolutionary leadership of the working class. We hope there are still cadres in the iSt with a sufficiently serious commitment to the Trotskyist program to which they were originally recruited to make a fight for that program now, inside the SL. Perhaps there are those who, seeking to avoid confrontation with the top leadership, think that what the SL is doing is holding the revolutionary line firmly through the difficult Reagan years, for unnamed future generations of revolutionists to pick up and carry to fruition. But this is a defeatist fairy tale. The revolutionary program must be applied in order to remain revolutionary—you can’t seal it in a vault while you wait for things to sort themselves out.

The boycott is a case in point. When for eleven days in Reagan’s racist America longshoremen refused to handle South African cargo, thus "fortifying" black toilers of South Africa, the SL was nothing but a substitutionalist, sectarian obstacle.

Yours for Trotskyist honesty,

Mike Anton
Chris Knox
Jeff Hayden

Defy the Injunction!

Keylor’s call to set up a picket line at Pier 80 on Tuesday, 4 December 1984:

There was a court order and an injunction yesterday to supply men to work this ship. The executive board of the union voted last night eleven to five to comply with the court order. Longshoremen were told this morning that we had to work the ship. I personally am not going to work this cargo. I’ve encouraged my brother longshoremen not to work it, and I encourage you to put up a picket line. With a picket line I don’t think the ship will work.

In the court order I was named as one of the co-conspirators. That doesn’t make any difference. If there is a picket line here, I’m going to be on it. I would encourage you to set up a picket line over here at the gate, now!

Posted: 31 July 2006