Memories of the 1984 Longshore Boycott

Howard Keylor, initiator of the action, speaking three decades later

In November and December 1984, the International Warehouse and Longshore Union (ILWU) in the port of San Francisco carried out a historic 11-day strike against cargo from apartheid South Africa. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the boycott the IBT held a forum in Berkeley on 13 December 2014 with featured speakers Howard Keylor and Jack Heyman, who played key roles in the boycott and in subsequent waterfront actions. Audio and text of all speeches are available here. An edited version of Keylor’s speech is reproduced below.

Let me take you back to the fall of 1984. The South African apartheid regime is feeling pretty secure. The resistance has been outlawed and suppressed with thousands imprisoned. The Communist Party led trade union movement has been dismantled although a number of new independent unions – most importantly the National Union of Miners – are growing and the Black townships are seething.

South Africa has the support of the U.S. which has designated the ANC a terrorist organization. Israel continues supplying South Africa with arms for the suppression of the Black majority. Hatred of apartheid in the U.S. has resulted in numerous demonstrations, some of which involved civil disobedience. The anti-apartheid movement largely centers around Divestment which is proving largely ineffectual. Politicians and prominent people are carrying out symbolic acts leading to temporary arrest with immediate release.

In spite of calls from the International Transport Federation for direct action against trade with South Africa no union had taken strike actions. This is not surprising since the 1947 Taft Hartley law made political strikes or secondary boycotts illegal under Federal law with the threat of draconian penalties.

There had been a number of tentative calls for strike action against South African shipping in ILWU longshore Local 10 but none of these were ever implemented. In 1977 a community blockade of a Nedlloyd Line ship with South African cargo was stopped for one shift in San Francisco. The Militant Caucus [of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League] helped to organize and participated in this blockade. The action was ended when a Local 10 business agent ordered longshoremen to obey the area arbitrator’s ruling that this was not a “legitimate” picket line under the terms of the contract.

In late 1984 the apartheid regime determined to crush the independent miners’ union by arresting the entire leadership, charging them with treason which was punishable by death.

During the previous decade there had been an intensive educational effort within Local 10 about the horrors of apartheid. This was largely the effort of the South African Liberation Support Committee which took its politics and leadership from the South African Communist Party and ignored the newly organized Black trade unions. Parallel to this education was the efforts of the Longshore/Warehouse Militant Caucus of which I was a member. A major component of our propaganda and agitation was around the demand to defy Taft-Hartley in our own defense and in defense of other workers and the oppressed. We had made repeated appeals to take strike action against ships which about every three weeks docked in San Francisco to discharge cargo from South Africa and to load cargo for South Africa.

A personal commentary: I joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1948 and remained during the vicious anti-communist witch hunts until 1961 when I left finally over the CPs abject capitulation to Harry Bridge’s disastrous Modernization and Mechanization contract. I had begun working as a longshoreman in 1953. Submission to Bridge’s class collaboration policies was the hallmark of the CP’s trade union work.

In 1974 I came into contact with supporters of the Spartacist League (SL) in the ILWU who were organizing a class-struggle caucus in the union. I was impressed with how the Spartacist initiated and supported caucuses among auto, telephone and maritime workers united militant workers to form a small but real alternative to the endemic class collaborationist leadership of the trade unions on the basis of an explicitly anti-capitalist full program for workers’ liberation. I joined in organizing the Longshore/Warehouse Militant Caucus and a year later became a supporter of the Spartacist League. From then until 1981 when I was purged from the Caucus we initiated and led a wide range of struggles to defend the longshoremen as well as in initiating actions in defense of other workers and the oppressed. The work of the Militant Caucus provided a model of how to raise consciousness among workers which in turn laid the basis for the 1984 strike/boycott.

In 1984 I was a member of the non-public External Tendency of the IST composed of supporters who had been driven out of the SL. I published the Militant Longshoreman and kept many of the workers close retaining their confidence. This provided a base for the 1984 anti-apartheid action.

The Taft-Hartley law had been partially demystified when, in the early 1980s, all three longshore locals in the Bay Area had shut down operations and created a mass picket to teach a lesson to an employer in Richmond who had replaced longshoremen with Operating Engineers. The locals defied an injunction and blocked the pier from the waterside with picket boats. The strike succeeded without reprisals.

In October 1984 Bob Mandel persuaded me that the moment was right to put forward a motion in the Executive Board of Local 10 in which I had been serving for about 10 years. I had worried that it might not pass the Executive Board and I did not like the precedent of a defeat of such an important initiative. Bob had been the organizer of the Longshore/Warehouse Militant Caucus and had a good sense of the situation. To my surprise my motion to not work the next ship with South African cargo passed unanimously with all of the local officers voting in support. A major factor was that the external climate had shifted with the Democratic Party having lost seats to the Republicans causing them to posture to the left on apartheid.

When the motion was debated at a subsequent closed off-the-record meeting of Local 10 it also passed unanimously. At that meeting I acknowledged that there were great risks involved but argued that if we did it right and won enough public support we could probably succeed without suffering penalties. The motion was passed with Leo Robinson’s amendment to not work only the South African cargo rather than the whole ship. This was motivated on the grounds that if the action was publicly described as the individual action of each longshoreman it would avoid or delay Federal Court action. I did not support the amendment, but considered that while less than an ideal open confrontation the motion as amended was still supportable.

Stan Gow, an SL supporter who was still with the Militant Caucus and was also on the Local 10 Executive Board, was at the meeting and presumed to have vote for the amended motion since it was recorded as unanimous.

Within the largely Black Local 10 membership a de facto united front was formed that included Communist Party supporters, Maoists, Black Nationalists, militant trade unionists and even all of the local officers. The Executive Board appointed an implementation or action committee while the officers stayed out of the limelight. I was on that committee and took responsibility for the morning shift and publicity.

In retrospect I think that the employers never expected that longshoremen would take illegal strike action. At that time monitoring ship movement was much more difficult than today. I relied upon personal connection with ILWU Ships Clerks officials in Los Angeles to inform me when the Nedlloyd ship left there for docking in San Francisco. In addition I was the only member of the implementation committee to have a marine radio so that I could listen in to the Coast Guard, Bar Pilots and tug boat channels for precise information. ILWU Ships Clerks Local 34 dispatched one of their best militants and a personal friend of mine Eugene Weisberger, as chief clerk for the ship enabling us to carefully separate out the Australian cargo for discharge leaving the South African cargo untouched.

When the Nedlloyd Kimberley arrived at the beginning of the night shift it was met with a large demonstration to support the longshoremen. When the militants who took the dispatch finished working the Australian cargo and came out they were met with loud applause from everyone except the Spartacists who had tried unsuccessfully to block the operation by putting up a phony picket line.

On both the day and night shifts during the ensuing days a large group of supporters were always present. And that was a very important factor in keeping up morale and momentum inside the union.

During the action a message from a South African Black trade unionist was smuggled to us, enthusiastically supporting the strike. We also got a message from the Cape Verdian seamen on the Kimberley supporting our action. When the Kimberley returned to the Netherlands all Cape Verdian seamen on the entire Nedlloyd Line were fired and deported back to Cape Verde.

Political outreach was important in getting widespread public support. Liberal Democratic Party politicians helped with media contacts and issued statements of support. The bourgeois media outside the Bay Area largely blacked out reporting the event. Support by the left organizations in the Bay Area was an important factor especially Workers World who did a great deal of PR work.

Up to a point the waterfront employers were on the defensive. Then they finally got a Federal Court injunction. They were helped with this by the ILWU international officers all agreeing with the PMA that Local 10 was in violation of the contract by carrying out an illegal strike. Exhibit No. 1 in their injunction was a copy of a leaflet issued during the action by Spartacist supporter and Local 10 member Stan Gow describing how the Local 10 membership meeting passed a motion for the strike.

The next day the Executive Board met and I put forward a motion that the local continue the action in defiance of the injunction. My motion was defeated with 5 members voting for my motion, one of them being Stan Gow. The majority voted to end the action.

The next morning I appeared in the hiring hall and made a speech urging continuation of the strike. I then went to pier 80 and urged the demonstrators to set up a picket line and blockade the pier. This happened and no work proceeded for an hour. But eventually the cops, supported by the CP, managed to break it up. A couple of longshoremen were arrested.

There were no Federal reprisals against either the local or the longshoremen. The PMA probably feared that reprisals would cause the strike/boycott to reignite.

The injunction and the civil lawsuit for one million dollars against Leo Robinson and myself were left in place as a Damocles sword hanging over the local.

At the suggestion of Bolshevik Tendency supporters, the East Bay Campaign Against Apartheid blockaded another Nedlloyd Line ship with South African cargo at pier 80 in 1986 (see “Smash Apartheid! Workers to Power!”), This was successful for two whole shifts in spite of the entire Mission district police force trying to disperse the pickets. There were a few photos of that at the end of the video shown earlier. The next day Mayor Diane Feinstein sent the Tac Squad to arrest the demonstrators. This action had come as a complete surprise to the cops and the employers who were not prepared. The Local 10 officials were aware of the impending blockade and the longshoremen happily stood by or went home on the first day.

The eleven day Local 10 anti-apartheid action thirty years ago inspired longshoremen in Liverpool, England, and in Australia to take similar action.

It stands to this day, in my view, as one of the outstanding moments in the recent history of the Bay Area Labor movement.