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 Heyman’s speech is reproduced below.
I want to start off by giving people, especially the younger people here, an idea of what it was like in 1984 to actually organize an action like this and make it successful. There were three events that I think capture the essence of those reactionary years. Reagan had just been elected in 1980. One of the first things he did was smash a strike by PATCO, the professional air traffic controllers’ union. Even though the leadership of that union had supported him for president, he turned around and arrested them and put them in shackles. It was very prominently featured by all the news media. It was a message to the trade unions: do not strike, do not try to fight back against your bosses. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy caved in. That was number one.
Number two was the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who had just overthrown the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Somoza’s National Guard launched what was called the “Contra” war against the Sandinista revolution. Congress voted to stop the funding, but the Reagan administration secretly continued funding the Contra counterrevolution.
The third thing, I think, that colored the whole picture in the 1980s was the Polish trade union, Solidarnosc. Like the Contras, Solidarnosc, which opposed the Stalinist regime in Poland, was secretly receiving millions of dollars from the CIA, just as the Contras were, and they were striking against the Stalinist regime in Poland. There was effusive praise in the U.S. media for this reactionary “democratic” union which was really funded by the CIA and whose leadership was tightly linked to the Catholic Church. Those three things, I think, colored the political situation at the time of the anti-apartheid struggle.
So, what are the lessons to be drawn from the longshore boycott? I had just come into the ILWU in 1980, and what I got from this struggle was that a small revolutionary organization with workers in a caucus, and a party fraction running an operation in the union, can recruit militant workers to participate in class-struggle actions. I think that’s what happened in 1984. As Howard explained, various comrades had been purged from the Spartacist League a few years before, and he and other militants who had helped build the Militant Caucus were pushed out, but they still carried forward a class-struggle program in the longshore union. And that was based on the Transitional Program which is a tool to develop workers’ political consciousness (which is certainly not revolutionary to begin with) to the point where they understand the need to challenge the whole system.
One concrete example would be in terms of automation and employment. I was active in the Militant Solidarity caucus in the National Maritime Union in New York at the same time that Howard was in the Militant Caucus here in California. In both unions we would argue that “30 for 40” – 30 hours work for 40 hours pay – was the way to fight automation. So workers wouldn’t lose any wages, and there would be no lay-offs – we would just work fewer hours in the day. That put the onus on the employer. But this kind of demand can only be won through intense struggle – strikes or other sorts of job actions. It is not easy, but these experiences can help workers to understand the need for fundamental social change and the possibility of winning gains through struggle. That’s the essence of what the Transitional Program is about.
So there were a couple of key events that happened here on the West Coast in the late 1970s. One came after the Chilean military coup under Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende. The International Transport Workers Federation, a social-democratic organization based in London, called for workers’ actions around the world. Here in California there was a bloc between the Militant Caucus and the local ILWU leadership to hold up the first ship that came in from Chile as a show of solidarity. That was quite successful.
An even more important event was a strike in Union City by the ILWU’s Warehouse division (Local 6) against KNC Glass Company. The union bureaucrats were not doing anything to stop the company from bringing in scabs. So Bob Mandel, a Militant Caucus leader, managed to mobilize not only the workers in the struck plant but also Local 6 members in other warehouses in the area for serious mass pickets that meant “don’t cross.” Under no circumstances were they going to allow scabs across. The workers from neighboring companies who joined the pickets knew that if the KNC owners forced through a rotten contract or broke the union, they would be next. And the mass pickets at KNC succeeded because they were led by people who were determined to stop the scabs, which meant preventing the cops from scabherding. This kind of struggle gave credibility and authority to the Militant Caucus and succeeded in winning it new recruits in the ILWU. (See “Labor Solidarity Halts Union-Busting in Oakland Strike.”)
Now I was on the East Coast at the time, in the National Maritime Union (NMU), which used to be the largest maritime union in the country. It, along with the ILWU, had leaders who were Communist Party supporters in the 1930s. The difference, and it was the major difference, was that in the McCarthy period Harry Bridges (the ILWU leader) remained sympathetic to the Communist Party, whereas Joe Curran, the President of the NMU, became a fink and fingered different supporters of the Communist Party who were then purged. Thousands of seamen lost their right to work and were deregistered. So there was a big difference between the NMU which purged its members – the militants and leftists in the union – and the ILWU. In fact a lot of purged members from the National Maritime Union and other unions during the McCarthy period found a safe haven in the ILWU. Just to name a few quickly: Ferdinand Smith, who was black and probably the greatest orator in any of the maritime unions during the 1930s and 1940s. There was also Joe Stack and Blackie Myers.
It is essential to understand the “rule of law” in capitalist society, because anti-labor laws are a basic tool employed by capital in its struggle against the working class. The following quote from V.I. Lenin spelled it out pretty clearly:
“in every country the bourgeoisie inevitably devises two systems of rule, two methods of fighting for its interests and of maintaining its domination, and these methods at times succeed each other and at times are interwoven in various combinations. The first of these is the method of force, the method which rejects all concessions to the labor movement, the method of supporting all the old and obsolete institutions, the method of irreconcilably rejecting reforms.… The second is the method of ‘liberalism,’ of steps towards the development of political rights, towards reforms, concessions, and so forth.”
—“Differences in the European Labor Movement,” 16 December 1910
Our caucus in the National Maritime Union, the Militant Solidarity Caucus, which was supported by the Spartacist League, had some sharp differences over capitalist courts meddling in the internal affairs of the union with another oppositional group in the union headed up by Jim Morrissey, who had been a goon for Curran during the McCarthy period. Now Morrissey found himself in opposition, but his claim to fame was suing the union in the bourgeois courts, which we vigorously opposed. Morrissey relied on the Association of Union Democracy, a liberal outfit whose raison d’etre was suing unions. That was their only reason for existence and they went after union after union. Morrissey ended up suing the union, winning some money and then he just disappeared. He was out of the picture.
We continued to fight but were never able to lead struggles like the Militant Caucus did here with the KNC strike and the anti-Pinochet protests on the docks. In New York I headed up a united-front effort to picket a ship from Chile and the difference was very clear – when we went to picket in New York some characters right out of The Godfather stepped out of a big black limousine with their alligator shoes, ties and jackets and we knew they were packing. So we weren’t able to put up a picket line as was done here on the West Coast. The ILWU was a very, very different union than the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the East Coast.
I want to explain a little bit about what an outside/inside operation is. When you have a “community picket” that’s not union members putting up a picket line, it is people in the community holding a protest. In order for that to work you generally need inside support. This issue came up during the recent anti-ZIM [Israeli] ship protests that took place in August and September . We were able to carry out successful actions in several struggles here on the West Coast because we worked closely with various community organizations so they knew when to put the pickets up, who to talk to, and when to take them down to get around visits by arbitrators. The whole scenario was laid out by people on the inside. So those pickets were successful to the extent that they were collaborations with union activists.
But the best actions are not “community based,” but rather those taken by the workers themselves, and that is what was important about the 1984 anti-apartheid strike, as Howard clearly delineated. His initial motion was to hit the next ship that came in from South Africa. Communist Party supporter Leo Robinson’s amendment was to work the ship but not the South African cargo and that we do it as individuals. Now I think a stronger position would have been for the union to just take the action and not work the ship, but even in its watered-down form the action was certainly supportable. The cargo from South Africa was not worked, and news of the action bolstered the spirits of the workers in South Africa. I want to read a passage from a letter sent to the organizing committee from South Africa, from a leading official of the Durban dockers’ union who had been recently released from jail:
“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. [President P.W.] Botha’s new constitution is shedding more and more blood. And mind you this is only the beginning.”
So this was a strike conducted by the longshore union – ILWU Local 10. The members voted for this action. It was in defiance of Taft-Hartley which illegalized sympathy strikes. But that's what it was – an action in defense of the black workers in South Africa.
I want to get into some of the details of what actually happened. We were meeting every day, the Organizing Committee for the action, up in the Henry Schmidt room of the Local 10 union hall. The room was named after one of the key organizers of the 1934 Maritime strike. During these meetings one issue came up constantly. We knew there was going to be an injunction coming down and every time it came up for a vote it was unanimous that we were going to defy the injunction. So what happened on the day the injunction came down? The Local 10 Secretary/Treasurer, Tom Lupher, went down to the union dispatch hall and he read the injunction from the judge. I went up to Lupher – I was a member of the Inland Boatmen’s Union not Local 10 at the time – and I said, “Listen, the Organizing Committee has a different position. Our position is to defy the injunction. We want the right to give our point of view to the membership.” He said, “Well you can’t do it from the dispatch cage but you can speak from the hiring hall.”
So right on the spot a spontaneous united front developed on the part of everyone present who wanted to defy the injunction and continue the action. That included Howard, Stan Gow (a supporter of the Spartacist League), Larry Wright, myself and a few others. Howard, as he pointed out, spoke first. But by this time there were members in Local 10 who opposed continuing the action. They wanted it to be over, they wanted to go back to work and they became very hostile. And it became dangerous because after Howard spoke they started moving very aggressively toward the table we were standing on to address the members.
So we decided to disband the impromptu meeting in the hiring hall and get down to the port and start the picketing. When we arrived a little after 7am we found that some trucks were already going in, so a number of us jumped in front of the gate and blocked them. We managed to commandeer a flatbed truck that was about to go in which made a perfect stage for us to address the workers with a bullhorn we had.
At this point the Communist Party played a very bad role. They wanted to end the action on the grounds that the union was going to get fined, but on the Organizing Committee a majority still favored defying the injunction. So there was a bit of a rumble up on the platform and as soon as the police saw this, they moved in. There were a fair number of people who had come down there to block the gate, but the Spartacist League, in typical abstentionist fashion, stood on the side. They had brought placards but instead of joining those of us trying to continue the action, they walked away without pulling them out. Between the police and the Communist Party, the picketing was broken up. There were a couple of arrests, including at least one Local 10 member, and that was how it ended after 11 days.
There are a couple of things I want to go over. The important thing is to have a class-struggle program and an organization in the trade union that’s going to advance the struggle. But there is another somewhat intangible element necessary for success: you need to be bold. When the time is right you have to be able to strike, to take action. It is not just a matter of knowing your history and reading the textbooks and putting forward positions. It is not enough to be organized. Although both of these are necessary, you need a third element, which is when the time is right, you have to be able to move quickly and act decisively. I think that these three ingredients resulted in the 1984 action. So with a somewhat rudimentary form of organization and a clear class-struggle program, embodied by an experienced individual who had the respect and support of the best elements in the local, we were able to prevail for 11 days despite the fact these were the Reagan years, the trade-union bureaucrats were sticking their heads in the sand and much of the left was gripped by a sense of defeatism. And as you saw in Nelson Mandela’s remarks in the film [shown at the start of the meeting] it was a real inspiration to the workers in South Africa to know that workers in this country were striking on their behalf.
One important aspect of the 1984 action was that it was the first political strike for a long period of time. When the Vietnam War was going on there were a lot of anti-war protests, but the ILWU, like the rest of the unions, didn’t really take any actions against the war. There were members who demonstrated against the war, and endorsements of protest marches and so forth, but the ILWU kept loading the military cargo for Vietnam. So one very significant thing about the 1984 anti-apartheid action is that it paved the way for further actions down the road because, despite the existence of a standing injunction against the union, the members felt they had the power to take action.
Following the 1984 action, in 1987, the Inland Boatmen’s Union, an affiliate of the ILWU, struck Crowley Maritime. They brought scab ships into the port at Redwood City. We had a connection in the clerks union, Gene Weissberger, the same clerk who was spotting when the Australian cargo finished and they got down to the South African cargo on the Nedlloyd Kimberley. Gene got through to the clerk’s president and said, “Look, there are scabs working these barges in Redwood City. We’re going to shut the port down.” And all the ports in the Bay Area – seven ports – were shut down. Longshoremen joined the Boatman’s union in fending off the police, armed police, and putting an end to the scabbing. We marched down to the vessel and chased the scabs off. That was directly related to what happened in the anti-apartheid strike at Pier 80 a few years earlier.
In 1996 when the Liverpool dockers were locked out, we put up a union-centered picket line – mostly mostly ILWU members and retirees – in front of a ship from England. The longshoremen of course knew the pickets and so they honored the line, and the Neptune Jade, the ship, wasn’t worked for four days in Oakland. It eventually left and headed up to Vancouver, Canada, and it wasn’t worked there. The same situation – a picket line was set up. It went to Yokohama, Japan, and, for the third port in a row, that ship wasn’t worked. Once again this was inspired by the 1984 anti-apartheid action.
In 2000, five members of the ILA in Charleston, South Carolina were arrested on a picket line on charges that could have sent them to jail for 10 years. The ILA down there is a predominantly black union, like Local 10 is, so we raised a call for an action in solidarity with the “Charleston Five” at our ILWU convention. This got the attention of other unions and made defending the Charleston Five a cause célèbre in the American labor movement. In November 2001 the charges were finally dropped.
In 2002 we were locked out. We had massive marches and rallies in the port in Oakland and through the streets of San Francisco that represented a continuation of the legacy of militancy of class struggle.
In 2003, at the start of the war in Iraq, as I think some of you may remember, there were demonstrations in the port here. But there was a problem: it was another “community” picket of the port. It wasn’t effectively organized, there was no inside/outside coordination and it only lasted for two hours. This was during the state of hysteria in this country manufactured after 9/11 and in California Governor Gray Davis set up an “Anti-Terrorism Information Center.” A spokesperson for the Anti-Terrorism Center declared that anyone demonstrating against a war that is supposedly being fought against “terrorism,” can be called a “terrorist.” And that is how the police approached the demonstrators in 2003. They attacked them. So the picketing only lasted for two hours and then the longshoremen went to work. A number of people were hit with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, wooden dowels, and dozens were arrested. I was arrested myself.
We got our revenge a few years later when we put a resolution before the union convention to strike on May Day 2008, and these are the literal words in the resolution:
“To strike against the imperialist war in Iraq and Afghanistan and to demand the troops be withdrawn immediately.”
We shut down every port on the West Coast for the entire day shift through a union action – not a “community picket,” but a union action.
There was no other union in the country that acted to defend the Wisconsin workers when they were under attack in 2011, but we did. We shut the port down here in the Bay Area in solidarity with Wisconsin.
And recently there were the actions against the ZIM ships [owned by Israel’s biggest transport company] to protest Israeli apartheid. They were mostly inside/outside operations with support of the longshoremen’s union. In both August and September  picket lines were set up and longshoremen didn’t cross. The September action was particularly interesting because the longshoremen on their own refused to take a dispatch to the ship so there was not even a need for a picket that morning.
Finally we have all seen the protests out on the streets today and over the last couple of weeks against police killing young black men. In 2010 we shut down all the ports in the Bay Area to demand justice for the family of Oscar Grant, who was murdered by Johannes Mehserle, a BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] policeman, on New Year’s Day 2009. That is the kind of action we need more of from the labor movement today – actions that make the connection between union workplace struggles and what is happening in society in general: for example police repression and the inequality of wealth which inspired the Occupy movement. Those are the sorts of struggles that have to be taken up by the workers’ movement, to develop a vibrant working class with the political awareness necessary to recognize the need to get rid of capitalism in favor of building a socialist society.