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Bay Area Longshore Workers Fought Against Apartheid

Historical Essay

by Peter Cole

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As early as December 28, 1962, San Francisco members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) staged a boycott of South African apartheid cargo.

Photo: from the DISPATCHER, accessed at ILWU Archives

While the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa—known as apartheid—was led by the people of that land, human beings around the world also contributed to what became the most impressive social movement in the post-World War II world. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a committed cadre of longshore workers helped lead the fight to overthrow apartheid. For decades, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) took a principled stand against apartheid and periodically undertook direct actions in solidarity with the black majority in South Africa. Most notably in 1984, just a few weeks after President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, members of the ILWU Bay Area’s branches, Locals 10 and 34, refused to touch South African cargo for eleven days; arguably the most dramatic in the history of the Bay Area’s anti-apartheid movement, this effort inspired growing numbers of Bay Area residents to join the fight and contributed to the US anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1970s, during a nationally-televised interview with Bill Moyers, Harry Bridges, ILWU founding president, explained why his union refused to load scrap iron for fascist Japan forty years earlier: “Interfere with the foreign policy of the country? Sure as hell! That’s our job, that’s our privilege, that’s our right, that’s our duty.” On a number of occasions ever since, ILWU members have taken similar actions to protest the policies and principles of some foreign nations, especially fascist and dictatorial ones, as well as domestic policies the union opposed. However, it was not Bridges—who retired in 1977—who applied the same tactics and principles to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Rank-and-file members of Local 10 created, led, and populated a bold movement on behalf of oppressed workers halfway across the world. For apartheid not only denied nonwhite people equal rights, at its core apartheid exploited millions of workers who toiled in the gold and diamond mines and other industries of South Africa. Black and white longshoremen, self-consciously members of the Left, long had taken an interest in and fought against apartheid.

Amidst rising militancy and heightened repression in South Africa, in 1962, two years after the ILWU formally endorsed a boycott of South African goods, Local 10 stopped work to protest apartheid. Very possibly, this was first anti-apartheid action ever taken by a labor union in the United States. When the Dutch ship Raki, which carried South African asbestos, coffee, and hemp, arrived at San Francisco Pier 19, Local 10 members refused to cross a community picket line and, thus, refused to unload the cargo. Mary Louise Hooper of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), the nation’s leading organization of its kind, organized this action to correspond with a nationwide series of ACOA events to commemorate the annual Human Rights Day (December 10th). Hooper worked, in advance, with William “Bill” Chester, the highest-ranking African American official in the ILWU, to ensure that the union would support this action. Along with the ACOA, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Congress of Racial Equality also participated. More than a hundred Local 10 members refused to cross community picket lines during the morning and evening shifts. As a result, the ship remained untouched for a full day before being unloaded.

Subsequently, massive repression in South Africa resulted in a temporary decline in opposition. In the Bay Area, there were scattered informal, “quickie” strikes of South African cargo. From the mid 1960s to mid 1970s, longshore workers and everyone else in the Bay Area and nation, instead, were more focused upon the Vietnam War, the US civil rights revolution, and other social movements.

Then in 1976, inspired by the legendary uprising of young black students in a township called Soweto, Leo Robinson, an African American longshoreman from Oakland, helped form Local 10’s Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee. The SALSC, which was created by a vote of Local 10’s rank-and-file, was the first anti-apartheid group in an American labor union. Other Local 10 members central to this work included Larry Wright, Dave Stewart, Bill Proctor, and a few others. They also worked closely with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and community groups in the anti-apartheid movement. This committee raised awareness for years among their fellow workers as well as up and down the West Coast, connecting with other unionists, students, and religious people who joined this growing movement.

Local 10 activists initiated a series of actions that targeted South African cargo. First, in late 1976 and early 1977, community activists coordinated with the Longshore-Warehouse Militant Caucus, a group of radical leftists in Local 10 and Local 6 (the Bay Area’s warehouse branch) to protest the docking of the Nedlloyd Kimberley. Later in 1977, on Easter Sunday, the SALSC coordinated a brief boycott of the Kimberley, as part of a week of union actions against apartheid across the globe. When the ship docked, the dispatcher purposefully selected workers committed to refusing to cross a community picket at Pier 27. Approximately 500 people, many from churches, cheered the workers and hoisted banners with slogans like “Apartheid is Crucifixion.”

Also in 1977, SALSC collected thirty tons of supplies on behalf of Africans involved in various liberation struggles. Robinson, Proctor, Stewart, Wright, and a few others reached out to churches and community groups to collect clothing, food, medicine, and other essentials, using the Local 10 hall in San Francisco as the central depot. SALSC activists also convinced shipping companies to donate and ship two forty-foot containers free of charge to East Africa. A few dozen longshore volunteers loaded one of the containers with goods for South African exiles in Tanzania and another to Zimbabwean refugees in Mozambique. An ILWU committee also raised $50,000 for a maternity clinic in Mozambique.

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SALSC activists and other longshoremen who volunteered to load donations into two shipping containers to be sent to freedom fighters from Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). From left to right: Larry Wright, Clarence C. Cooper, Jr., Alton Harris, Leo Robinson, Bill Proctor (and son), Bailey M. Buffin, Charles Jones, Amile Ashley, and David Stewart

Photo: from the DISPATCHER, February 11, 1977, accessed at ILWU archives

Though these efforts are commendable, the longshoremen’s most impressive act was their 11-day boycott in 1984. At the union’s monthly meeting, the SALSC received permission to show an intense documentary called Last Grave at Dimbaza, which provides, in sixty minutes, an excellent explanation about why everyone should stand against apartheid. Sure enough, right after the film, the members unanimously voted to boycott the South African cargo aboard the next ship carrying it. Howard Keylor made the first motion, to boycott the next ship carrying South African cargo but Robinson amended the motion so that the members would unload all of the cargo except the South African cargo.

A few weeks later, the Nedlloyd Kimberley docked at San Francisco’s Pier 80. Billy Proctor, a radical in Local 10 whose father also had been an ILWU militant, recalled the scene: “South African cargo was not the only cargo, so we worked some breakbulk cargo from Argentina as I recall, then after about two hours, from below deck I heard our Ships Clerk yell up to me, ‘that's it Proctor, nothing left down here but razor wire (cortina) and auto glass from South Africa.’ I then said, and I shall never forget it....’okay fellas, come on out of the hold, I ain't hoisting one ounce of cargo from South Africa’ and the movement of cargo came to a halt, we then left the ship.”

Although the mainstream US media did not initially cover these events, despite being almost unprecedented, word spread and hundreds of ordinary people spent the next ten days at Pier 80 to give longshore workers support—by singing, chanting, and making witness. ILWU International President, Jimmy Herman, and the entire International leadership kept their mouths conspicuously shut, however, presumably fearful of a backlash though the International had formally endorsed policies critical of apartheid South Africa at previous union conventions. Even after the events occurred and received near-universal praise, the International remained cautious: the short article in the union’s paper, The Dispatcher, distanced the union from the acts of “individual” members acting on their “consciences.”

During the eleven-day protest, as hundreds protested daily and the boycott finally made the news, the South African cargo remained in the hold. Ultimately, a federal judge granted employers an injunction that threatened union leaders with prison and massive fines. The workers, having made their point, unloaded the cargo.

The SALSC had greatly heightened awareness of the struggle against apartheid. The longshore workers also had signaled to others in the Bay Area and across the nation what could be done to combat apartheid. As key Bay Area activist David Bacon later reflected, “That was the real birth of the anti-apartheid movement in northern [sic] California,” known as the Bay Area Free South Africa Movement (BAFSAM). Drawing from community, labor, and civil rights groups, BAFSAM activists on both sides of the Bay continued protests against Nedlloyd ships hauling South African cargo, as well as at the headquarters of the shipping companies, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The PMA demonstrations lasted several years. Anti-apartheid activists, including those in the ILWU, also linked up with allies in other Pacific coast port cities including Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver to expand the movement.

The ILWU also was a leader in the divestment movement, which grew increasingly popular around the country throughout the 1980s. The ILWU first discussed, in 1978, pulling its ILWU-PMA Pension Fund investments from any company conducting business in South Africa. The Local 10 boycott particularly energized Bay Area activists to protest and divest. The cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco—the area’s three largest municipalities—all adopted strong divestment policies though these efforts had been going on for sometime before 1984.

The ILWU actions also inspired students at University of California, Berkeley to ramp up pressure on the University of California Board of Regents to divest its $3 billion endowment. In 1985 protests escalated at Berkeley for several months, becoming the largest and most sustained bout of activism since the Vietnam War era. Thousands of students rallied and hundreds erected a shantytown, meant to resemble a South African township, resulting in repeated clashes with police and increased public awareness. Larry Wright, Howard Keylor, and other ILWU activists spoke on campus and encouraged students to push the Board of Regents to divest. A huge ILWU banner with its slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was prominently displayed at many of the protests. Even the elderly Harry Bridges showed up to support the demonstrations, as did International President Jimmy Herman and other International officers.

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1985 anti-apartheid demonstration at UC Berkeley.

Photo: Tom Price

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1985 ILWU marchers against apartheid.

Photo: ILWU archives

Local 10 also shaped Congressman Ron Dellums, who would become a government leader in the effort to impose U.S. sanctions on South Africa. Dellums’ father belonged to Local 10, and his uncle C.L. Dellums was probably was the most important Black labor and civil rights activist in California during the mid-twentieth century. Elected to Congress in 1970 to represent Oakland and Berkeley, and ultimately serving thirteen terms, longshore workers were an important part of his constituency. Starting in 1971 Dellums introduced a sanctions bill every session he served in Congress and helped create the D.C.-based Free South Africa Movement. Coincidentally, this group launched its most well known action just three days prior to Local 10’s work stoppage in 1984, when it began daily sit-ins at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Dellums wrote about the Nedlloyd Kimberley boycott in his autobiography, “we were elated that people were acting on their own to seize the moment to express their outrage with U.S. foreign policy and the apartheid regime.” Thus, Local 10’s actions truly had national reach, perhaps never more so than when the US Congress, shepherded by Dellums, overrode President Reagan’s veto in 1986 to enact governmental sanctions on South Africa.

One might think, given the near sanctification of Nelson Mandela after he passed away in 2013, that everyone opposed apartheid but that is false. Many Americans suggested that this fight was not ours. Others claimed that anti-apartheid activists, including Mandela, were communists and, thus, deserved our hatred rather than our sympathy. Just prior to the Nedlloyd Kimberley boycott President Reagan had just won re-election in a landslide with 57.5% of Californians voting for him. Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, were busy ramping up the Cold War and doing as little as possible for South Africa’s black majority. Instead of looking to elected leaders, in Washington DC, rank-and-file unionists put their livelihoods on the line to fight apartheid.

Perhaps the most vital indicator of Local 10’s commitment to the AAM was Nelson Mandela’s singling out the union for thanks on his first tour of the United States in 1990, shortly after being released from twenty-seven years in prison. On Mandela’s historic ten-day tour, 60,000 people crammed into the Oakland Coliseum to hear speakers including Congressman Dellums. The Bay Area choir Vukani Mawethu, which was founded by a South African exile and included ILWU activist Alex Bagwell and his wife, sang freedom songs. When Mandela took the stage, he singled out the 1984 boycott for special praise, dedicating a full 10 percent of his speech to Local 10:

We salute members of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union Local 10 who refused to unload a South African cargo ship in 1984. In response to this demonstration, other workers, church people, community activists, and educators gathered each day at the docks to express their solidarity with the dockworkers. They established themselves as the frontline of the anti-apartheid movement in the Bay area.

That no less a figure than Mandela thanked Local 10 speaks volumes about what he considered integral to the struggle. Mandela had worked closely with unionists and communists from the 1940s until his imprisonment.

Even today, activists in Local 10 and the ILWU remain quite proud of these contributions. At the annual “Bloody Thursday” commemoration in 2011 at San Francisco’s hiring hall, speakers invoked the fight against apartheid as central to their own history. And, in 2013, a large memorial service was held at Local 10’s hall to celebrate Leo Robinson for championing racial equality and the rights of Black workers, radicals, and unionists. Dozens of unionists recounted stories of how Robinson supported rank-and-file activism over four decades, especially his fight against apartheid. The South African Ambassador to the United States even gave a speech and presented Robinson’s widow with the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award.

ILWU efforts to assist Black workers in South Africa did not end with the birth of multiracial democracy in 1994. When thirty-four striking platinum miners in Marikana were killed by the South African police in 2012, the (still) majority Black membership of Local 10 voted to condemn Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa. Clearly, Bay Area longshore workers still believe in international solidarity and strive to live up to the union’s motto, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”


Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University in Macomb and Research Associate, Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia and currently is writing Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.