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The Copra Dock at Islais Creek: ILWU Oral History

Primary Source

--From The Dispatcher, June 1998

The Copra Dock at Islais Creek 1947–1974
THE ILWU ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Volume II, Part I

Edited by Harvey Schwartz

Copra Crane, late 1990s; photo by Chris Carlsson
Harry Bridges was a young Australian sailor when he arrived at San Francisco aboard the copra-laden barkentine Ysabel in 1920. Bridges, of course, went on to become a legendary labor leader. As for copra, or dried coconut meat, the source of coconut oil—it had long been worked in San Francisco Bay when Bridges landed. Later, after World War II, there would be a copra heyday along San Francisco’s Islais Creek at pier 84—known to waterfront workers as “the copra dock”—that serviced the nearby Cargill, Inc., copra processing plant.

Cargill, an American agribusiness giant based in Minnesota, imported thousand of tons of copra from the Philippines between 1947 and 1974. After ILWU Local 10 longshoremen dislodged the incoming copra, Cargill’s plant workers—who joined ILWU Local 6 in 1964—crushed the oil from it in a multi-step process and made what was left into copra meal or animal feed. The oil was used in soap and as “butter” for movie theater popcorn. Then, in the early ’70s, an American post-World War II tax-free export agreement with the Philippines that had greatly profited Cargill lapsed. Cargill abruptly closed its Islais Creek facility.

All that remains today of Cargill’s plant and the longshore equipment at pier 84 is the copra crane. The movement to preserve it, and make it a tribute to the copra handlers and a symbol for all workers, has attracted enthusiastic ILWU support. IBU and Locals 6, 10, 34 and 91 pensioners and active members have set up a Labor Landmark Association now headed by William T. Ward, President, and Don Watson, Secretary-Treasurer.

The Association is working closely with Archie Green, the nationally-renowned labor folklorist, and Julia Viera, the crusading leader of the Friends of Islais Creek who has worked for a decade to clean and beautify that waterfront resource. Together they have forged a unique and pioneering alliance with officials of various government agencies and a small army of volunteer architects, environmentalists, and community activists. Their goal is to create an urban park along Islais Creek with the crane as its trademark, complete with recreational facilities and a museum dedicated to San Francisco waterfront labor history.

The ILWU veterans quoted here are Joe Amyes, a former Local 91 President; Donald R. (Bud) Riggs, Local 91; Don Ruth, a retired Local 6 Business Agent; Willard (Will) Whitaker, Local 91 Assistant Secretary-Treasurer/Dispatcher; and Ralph Zamacona, a Local 10 pensioner.

JOE AMYES

When I started at the copra dock in 1948, the method of removing copra, which was a bulk cargo, was by means of a vacuum situation. We had these things they called pumps, which are actually big vacuum cleaners, with about a ten inch diameter pipe that we rigged and brought into the hold. The copra had been in the ship for a while and it got solid in there. So it was a pick and shovel job. It was hard work with a 20 cent an hour premium.

Copra-picking-by-Otto-Hagel.jpg

Two ILWU longshoremen break up the copra by hand. The picks were specially designed for copra work. Budd Riggs has donated a pick to the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association. “You worked 20 minutes with a pick, 20 minutes with a shovel, and you had 20 minutes off.” —Joe Amyes

Photo: The Dispatcher

We had 18 men gangs, with 12 men in the hold, and two pipes that were removing the copra. There were six men on each pipe. You worked 20 minutes with a pick, 20 minutes with a shovel, and you had 20 minutes off. We were working in pairs. Copra at the bottom, where moisture collected and it rotted, smelled like hell.

The copra was full of copra bugs. They’d get in your nose, in your mouth, in your eyes and down your neck. It could be kind of uncomfortable ’til you got used to it! But the damn things don’t survive once they leave the copra. A couple of days after the ship was gone you couldn’t find one.

I had a partner who was absolutely incredible. His name was Pete Bolotoff. He was an old Russian who was about 60, but what a hard worker. I worked with him until my transfer to ILWU Local 91, the foremen’s union, in 1956.

BUDD RIGGS

I started on the longshoremen’s B list in ’63, but I was actually with my dad at the copra dock from ’61 to ’63 learning about the future of what I was going to do. My dad, Armand Riggs, was a walking boss at the copra dock for years. When we got our A books later in the ’60s, I went to the copra dock whenever I could get the job.

“Shit Creek,” that’s what we called it. The water was black and bubbling. I believe the sewer was draining in there. Besides the copra, the creek itself smelled. Yes, there was a copra smell, like smoked coconut. But when you work, it’s like anything else; you work 15 minutes into it and you don’t smell it anymore until you went home and your wife or mother or whoever you went to said, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You stink!”

The copra beetles—we called them copra bugs—were there when you opened the hatch. We insisted they open the hatches at sea before they got here to let the bugs get out. If you didn’t, when you opened the hatches millions of ’em come out. If one crawled on you and you got it under your armpit and pinched it, it would bite you. But it was nothing serious.

The flurry of bugs went by; after the first day, there was very few of them. The coldness of the area would kill ’em. We used to have fun with it. New people would come by. They’d be scared; you could see it. We’d say, “Oh, only two or three people have died of these bug bites, don’t worry about it.” And that would be the end of them!

Copra-bulldozing-by-Otto-Hagel.jpg

An ILWU longshoreman runs the specially rigged tractor that breaks up the copra at the bottom of the ship’s hold. Copra Pete rests in the background. “It eat nine times the copra a man could pick.” —Will Whitaker

Photo: The Dispatcher

RALPH ZAMACONA

I was born in Mexico in 1919, but I grew up in San Francisco and was in the 1936 longshore strike. I joined the shoveling gang and worked at pier 84 in the ’50s and ’60s because they gave you more money per hour. I liked nights—more money too, time and a half overtime.

There was about five or six night shovel gangs. Everybody was shooting for that pier 84 hour time because there was always ten, 14, 15 night jobs. In-stead of callin’ up the hall every day for orders, you’d say, “Well, it’s good for about ten or 15 nights. You don’t have to worry about calling the hall.”

WILL WHITAKER

My father worked on the waterfront; he came down in ’43. So it was a family thing. I came on the waterfront in 1959 as a B man and often worked copra. Copra is very strange. A lot of people didn’t like to work it. They had a odor to it, they had bugs. But as a B man you didn’t really have much choice. You had to work where you could.

I found it very appealing. The work wasn’t that hard if you applied yourself. There was a gentleman who was a regular class A longshoreman named “Copra” Pete. He saw that I was interested in what I was doing, so he took me as a partner when I could come out there. He showed me the ropes and all the little tricks he had learned. So every time a ship came in and they’d give a B man a job, I went out there. Most of the guys wouldn’t go.

There were mostly Blacks out there on the copra dock. Pete was one of the few that wasn’t. I had a partner later on who was of Spanish descent that I worked with for years. But most of the rest of the fellas were Black. I was one of the early Blacks to become a Local 91 walking boss. I started walkin’ in 1973.

BUDD RIGGS

Around 1960 we got mechanized. My dad had ideas for the machine. They put it together with the people at Cargill. They took a small Caterpillar tractor, gutted it out, and put electric motors in it. It still had the tracks. On the front it had a couple of screw blades, one up and one down, that ground the copra up as it went into it.

Underneath it there was two big eight-inch diameter suction pipes that went to the back. Then these big metal hoses went all the way to the blowers that were on the dock. We called them blowers, but they were sucking.

The machine would drive around on top of the copra, eat it up, and let the blowers suck it up and out to the dock. A belt would cross it over to the Cargill plant. The driver ran the machine with a joystick like an airplane. He would ride it. Your feet were hanging down on the augers—we didn’t like that, but you did crazy things in those days.

WILL WHITAKER

The only thing the tall copra crane did—we called it a tower—was deliver the after product, after they had squeezed the copra, got all the oil out of it, and they made what we called “rabbit pellets” for feed. That crane put the pellets onto the ship. To load the ship you had to put what we called a trimmer in the hatch. The trimmer would throw the pellets into the corner. So you had to do what we called “shoot the corners.”

Being a copra man, my thing was mostly with the dockside blowers that sucked the copra out of the ships. I thought that’s the focus of the copra. The tower, the copra crane, whatever you call it, gives me a feeling that, OK, it’s remembered. Even for people who hated the smell and the bugs, it’s something that will be there for a while and will be preserved. It’s gonna remind people that OK, there was an operation that went along out here.

DON RUTH

Guys with hats, left to right: Archie Green, Don Watson, Harvey Schwartz; ILWU officials deliver support for the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Committee
I’m Scotch-Irish and part Cherokee Indian. I was raised in Eastern Tennessee. In 1958 I went to work at Cargill. By the mid-1960s I was a foreman operator. I could operate the copra crushing plant where the oil expellers were, I could operate the solvent-extracting plant that washed out remaining oil, and I could operate the refinery. There were just a few of us who were that flexible.

In 1958 we were in the Seafarers International Union (SIU), in a little off-shoot union called the Fish Cannery Workers. They weren’t an aggressive, people-minded union like the ILWU. It was a company and union official relationship instead of a membership of the union relationship with the employer. And SIU had a goon squad that tried to keep people in line.

I became a shop steward for Fish Cannery in a matter of months after I became employed. We had no Blacks working in that plant and I complained. It was all white people, and most of the people hired were from places like where I came from, like Tennessee and Alabama. But I said they should hire Blacks, maybe because I was from East Tennessee, which is more tolerant than Alabama or Georgia. We were taught not to discriminate.

Cargill screwed up big time back in 1963. In our contract negotiations they wouldn’t even give us a nickel or a dime raise. Ten cents an hour would probably have bought peace. Then I found out through government agencies that Cargill was makin’ nothin’ but big-time money. And here Cargill was cryin’ poor-mouth—they couldn’t give us a nickel raise.

We were able to get ’em to bring in filtered breathing masks—I was instrumental in that—and to put up signs about what some of this sulfuric acid and water and oil mixed together would mean breathing in them fumes. And I got medical data to post on the bulletins boards.

That company was really getting upset over me. And the union was warning me to back off, that I was endangering my job. I said, “I’m not quitting. If they want to fire me, fine, but in the meantime I’m going to tell the people the truth.”

So I was in trouble. Then Clarence Paton, a pier 84 worker whose brother was a former president of ILWU Local 6, introduced me to LeRoy King, an organizer for the ILWU International. LeRoy led me along and helped me.

I’d organize one or two people at a time, and tell ’em, “We’re gonna change unions, we’re goin’ to ILWU Local 6.” I was able to keep everything secret, and that was hard to do with 80 or 90 men. This is after the ’63 negotiations. It took us almost a year of underground work, but we got everybody signed up.

After we filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, the SIU came in big time. First they offered me a job as Secretary-Treasurer of Fish Cannery if I’d back off. I said, “I don’t want a job like that. I want a job that’s elected by the people, not appointed.”

I had phone calls and threats. I walked right into their office and said, “If you blow me away, I’ve already notified all my family in Tennessee, and they have your address. You better hope the f—k nobody else bothers me, ’cause they are gonna come and get you, your dogs, your chickens, and your family.” They called the dogs off me. LeRoy King and Harry Bridges said, “You got a lotta guts there, boy. You did good.”

During the election period, the copra dock longshoremen gave verbal support: “If this company messes with any of you, we’ll shut the dock down.” It gave our people a feeling of strength where they could stand up and talk to the boss on an equal basis without fear.

Local 6 won the election hands down, and in ’64 we got our first contract. Our maintenance men got $ 2 or $ 3 an hour increase overnight. On the warehouse rate, everybody in that plant got a raise. Now the company had to pay decent wages. Before that, we—myself included—wanted to work overtime so we could take more money home, ’cause a straight time pay check wasn’t enough to survive on.

Remember the company’s policy of not hiring Blacks? A few days after the NLRB notified the company of the pending election, they hired two Black people. Then they hired some more Mexicans—they’d had one—and another Black person. So I broke their trend down there. I’d been agitating about this for a long time.

I was the chief steward under SIU in ’64, and I continued my leadership after the NLRB election. We had a reconfirmation election and an election where I got a good solid committee to back me up. We were under the ILWU program, not the SIU appoint this, appoint that program.

In 1965 we had a wildcat strike—a strike in the middle of the contract. The company had instituted a ten-four operation: ten days on, four days off. But they manipulated the wording of the contract and the schedule so they could work people into the four-day rest period. We said, “Wait a minute. We’re supposed to have four days off; if we work any of those days after working ten days straight, it’s overtime.”

It was abused so bad we had a work stoppage that became a full-scale strike for ten days. Chili Duarte, the Local 6 President, told me this was not an arbitration issue. But he said we still gotta straighten this company out because they abused and misinterpreted the contract intent. “It’s gonna be up to you guys,” he said, “to stop work until they pay you.” The longshoremen supported us; they walked off and left a copra ship sittin’ there at the dock.

Finally, the company decided to back up and pay the money. They also said, “Everybody can come back to work except Don Ruth.” The men stayed out extra days for me, but I felt bad; a couple of guys, their kids were gettin’ hungry. I told Chili and George Valters, Local 6’s Secretary-Treasurer, “Put everybody back to work and take me to arbitration.” We went before Sam Kagel, and he ruled against me. He said that as the shop steward on the job, it was my responsibility to defend the company and order people back to work. Well, who the hell is gonna do that?

Soon Local 6 established penalty pay so harsh on the employer that Cargill didn’t make slave labor out of the workers anymore. The company quit makin’ ’em work so many hours and hired more people. And when I was fired, Armand Riggs and the longshoremen passed the hat and got me some grocery money ’til I got down to the Local 6 hiring hall. The Cargill people who had been on strike and went to work all kicked in a couple of bucks. I got dispatched out right away, worked at several places, and was elected Business Agent in ’72. I served the union that way except for two years until I retired in 1989.

BUDD RIGGS

I became a Local 91 walker in ’72 or ’73; Consolidated Stevedoring Co. at the copra dock made me a walking boss. Then, in ’74 when the dock closed, to me it was just “bango,” just that quick. It put lots of people out of work. There was a lot of lost longshore jobs and a lot of jobs in that factory, too. Everyone involved in the copra crushing division went down real quick. It was all over.

WILL WHITAKER

I remember why the copra dock closed. Ferdinand Marcos, who was in charge of the Philippines, decided he wanted to put his people to work, because all they was doin’ is gathering the copra and shipping it over here. So they built factories over there to squeeze the copra and get the oil out. He said, “Ok, you can still take copra out,” but he put a tax on the copra that was so high that it was cheaper to just bring the oil in. So that’s what happened to the copra dock. If you don’t have a product to squeeze, you don’t have a job.