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Beyond the Waterfront

Few workers hold as much potential power as dockworkers. Studying the history of those workers, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and Durban, South Africa, shows how such workers can continue building that power into the twenty-first century.

Old port area along Mission Bay, San Francisco, CA in 2015. (Robert Gumpert)

Almost alone among unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) employs a full-time librarian and archivist. In my seventeen years as organizing director, I would often take my lunch down to the third floor of the union’s headquarters in San Francisco and gab with librarian Gene Vrana or his successor Robin Walker. Beyond maintaining the union’s archives, books, newspapers, clippings, and oral histories, they were both a treasure trove of knowledge about the union’s history and traditions.

Perhaps no other union in the United States besides the United Auto Workers has been the object of so many histories, articles, and speculation. Peter Cole has added a fine volume to that pantheon with his comparative study of dockworkers in the Bay Area with their counterparts in the Port of Durban, South Africa.

A Tale of Dockworkers on Two Continents

Cole focuses his examination of the two dockworker groups on their often unheralded contributions to the struggle for racial justice. He also examines their responses to port automation, the introduction of containers (“containerization”), and their participation in international solidarity actions.

Cole contextualizes working-class power in time, place, and sociopolitical conditions. First, he draws out a discussion of the process of labor casualization and how it can serve or inhibit the working-class struggle depending on social and political context. The “shape up” was the classic casual labor relationship on the waterfront prior to the great maritime strike of 1934 on the West Coast. The ship’s boss would come down to the docks looking for labor and pick a crew arbitrarily from workers “shaping up” on the waterfront. This was a system prone to extreme favoritism and discrimination based on caprice or the boss man’s strategic discrimination against troublemaking labor activists.

The 1934 strike and its subsequent settlement put in place a hiring hall that was controlled by the union with a nondiscriminatory dispatch system. The hiring hall was a powerful weapon that eliminated the day-to-day power of the employer over the workforce and spawned much of the independence and political activism of the ILWU.

In South Africa, on the other hand, the “togt,” a labor system based on the casual labor of Zulu tribesmen who worked day to day with no permanent relationship to the employers, ended up benefitting the workforce in its struggle over wages and conditions. Unions were banned, and there was no permanent employment system. So Zulus would just not “shape up” — in effect striking, but with impunity, because they had no permanent employment relationship that they were severing. The employers later instituted an employment system in order to dominate and control labor.

A second example of the two unions and their comparative histories yields another historical irony and a deeper analytical point. The ILWU had played an active role in support of liberation throughout the long struggle to end South African apartheid. Nelson Mandela saluted the ILWU on his 1990 visit to the United States after being freed from twenty-seven years in prison. At a rally before sixty thousand in the Oakland Coliseum, he declared, “We salute members of the ILWU Local 10 who refused to unload a South African cargo ship in 1984.”

Fast forward to 2008 post-apartheid and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) refused to unload arms from a Chinese ship docking in Durban. The arms were destined for the repressive regime of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. As Cole points out, the South African constitution legally protected the SATAWU action in 2008, and a South African judge ruled in favor of a potential freight boycott — whereas in 1984, a San Francisco federal judge slapped the ILWU and boycott leaders with injunctions.

This difference spotlights a more profound point, one very artfully articulated by sociologist and researcher Katy Fox-Hodess: “These economic and material dimensions of worker power only tell part of the story. A narrow focus on these dimensions without consideration of the broader social and historical forces shaping the terrain of struggle in the industry leads to an overestimation of possibilities and the underestimation of challenges.” Fox-Hodess, who worked for the ILWU as an organizer before beginning her academic career, forces us to remember that social and political context can lead to very different results in the class struggle. I have often made this point by suggesting that while dockworkers in Singapore may have a very similar structural power at a chokepoint node in the economy to their counterparts in Durban in 2008 (or Oakland in 1984, for that matter): their ability to act is limited by a military dictatorship and the possibility of extreme physical repression.

Cole’s book taps a lot of exciting scholarship and oral histories to make some important observations about the two groups of dockworkers and the fight for racial justice in both ports, as well as the struggles around automation and international solidarity actions. The book relies heavily on secondary and tertiary sources because most of the original combatants are deceased; as with many treatments of the ILWU, it tends to highlight the glorious history, but not uncritically. Cole does not pretend to make prognostications or give strategic guidance for the future, although such guidance is latent in the history of the union. How does the union’s history help us to write a new history, with a course of action that can overcome the union’s increasing isolation on the docks and the existential challenge of automation?

History as a Guide to Action

The early leaders of the ILWU recognized that their docker power was not an island. Seeing that their work was interconnected with warehousing that often took place right across the Embarcadero in northeastern San Francisco, they conducted the famed “March Inland” of 1934–38 that is well-documented in Harvey Schwartz’s book, The March Inland: Origins of the ILWU Warehouse Division. This “march inland” to organize warehouses resulted in the union covering its strategic flanks along the supply chain and created a warehouse local, Local 6, whose numbers rose to twenty thousand in the early 1950s — far outnumbering Local 10 and the longshore division.

This local and its numerical superiority meant that the international secretary treasurer of the union, until very recently, was elected out of the warehouse ranks.  It also rooted the ILWU in the broader working class, preventing it from being an isolated aristocracy of “Lords of the Docks.” The numbers in the warehouse local alone created a presence in the community that meant that longshore Local 10 was not isolated socially and politically from the broader community, but swam in the working-class sea. This was also true in the Puget Sound and Los Angeles where Locals 9 and 26 provided an anchor into the broader working class.

No one grasped this lesson more profoundly than Lou Goldblatt, the longtime secretary treasurer of the international union who came out of the “March Inland” in the Bay Area. When he was sent to Hawaii to help organize longshoremen there, he observed, “One of the conclusions I reached was that longshoring played a different role in Hawaii than it did on the mainland. Instead of being a general industry of longshoring, in Hawaii longshoring was just a branch of the Big Five (sugar and pineapple giants like C&H, Dole, Del Monte).” The docks could not be held without controlling the chain, the flanks. This led to the ILWU’s organization of thousands of sugar and pineapple workers.

When the sugar and pineapple plantations were phased out, the new resort hotels were organized by the ILWU, using the power of its numbers and its political reach. To this day, ILWU remains the largest private-sector union in Hawaii and a statewide political power that sustains whatever actions the nine hundred longshore workers may take on the docks.

Having a union with twenty-five thousand members on the Hawaiian Islands with a total population of one million people means a density that permeates community and politics and makes everything easier, especially the new organizing of workers. All the solidarity actions and support for racial justice are grounded in a reality of a broader community that simultaneously benefits from docker power and bolsters and strengthens it.

Employment Trends Away From the Docks

In the glory years of the “March Inland” in the Bay Area, the targets were very apparent, often across the Embarcadero in a coffee warehouse or manufacturer or other storage facility or processing plant with geographic proximity to the docks. While the proximity may not be the same today, the relationship between dock work and inland employment is easily understood. The ILWU is well aware of the studies that have been done by industry observers and academics on the growth of maritime logistics employment away from the waterfront.

Port of Long Beach in Los Angeles, California in 2000. (Robert Gumpert)

Nobody has better documented these employment trends than Peter V. Hall. He details the massive growth in container traffic through the West Coast ports.  In 1980, 2.1 million TEUs were handled in the ports of the West Coast. In 2010, 14.9 million units were handled. This is a 620 percent increase. In this same period of dramatic cargo growth, the growth in longshore, or “on-dock,” employment has grown, but at nowhere near the rate of cargo trends. In 1960, prior to the advent of containerization, there were 26,000 longshore workers on the West Coast docks. In 1980, after containerization, there were only 10,245 workers left on the docks. In the period that Hall details from 1980 to 2010, employment grew to only 13,829 — a rise of only 35 percent, puny when compared with the 620 percent increase in production.

There is no mystery to this disparity. Containers and massive capital equipment have replaced longshore gangs in the United States and around the world. Before containerization, a ship would call for two weeks to be loaded and unloaded. Today, the process can take less than twenty-four hours. While these increases in employment keep pace with regular employment trends, the real job growth action is off dock on the West Coast in three areas:

  • Logistics information services: from 1980, employment increased from 12,816 to 47,890 in 2010, a 274 percent growth. These are information service workers who track the flow of cargo and equipment worldwide. Often they work at inland office centers far from the docks. For example, Evergreen, the giant Taiwanese carrier, has a massive information center in Dallas, Texas — far from any port, and purposefully so.
  • Warehousing: from 1980, employment increased from 12,738 to 86,737 in 2010, a 581 percent growth. These are inland warehouses and third-party logistics centers that provide warehouse and order fulfillment services to giant retailers that are clients of the giant carriers that employ dockworkers in the ports.
  • Trucking: from 1980, employment increased from 156,808 to 257,673 in 2010, a 64 percent growth. The increases in these off-dock sectors are much more in keeping with the triple-digit increases in cargo volumes. These drivers are often called “owner operators” or “independent contractors,” and therefore their wages and conditions are eroded because they are treated as pieceworkers and paid by the load, especially in short-haul trucking. Many of them, particularly doing short-haul trucking, were once members of the Teamsters. After deregulation in 1981 the Teamsters lost control of this short-haul cargo “drayage” sector.

These growth sectors are the inland flanks of the ILWU, and in order to preserve its power and viability, the union must organize these workers and/or assist other unions in doing so. The surprisingly close relationship between Bridges and Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa was based on a mutual understanding of the linkages between maritime freight and trucking.

Fighting Automation or Growing Union Power?

In the fourth chapter of the book, Cole deals with the question of automation. This chapter rehashes the debates around the historic Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) agreement of 1960, which “allowed employers to develop containerized shipping facilities on West Coast ports, and guaranteed job security, a limited form of profit sharing, and early retirement for some union members” but also reduced the total number of longshore workers on the docks, and whether it was the right move or not by Bridges. The 1971 strike is studied again as rank-and-file reaction to the M&M and containerization and steady man provisions that weakened the hiring hall. Bridges is second-guessed for his consideration of a merger with the Teamsters, although it could be argued that he correctly saw that the ILWU long-term could not exist as an island isolated from other workers in the supply chain like truckers and warehouse workers.

There is only one scant mention by Cole of the Container Freight Station (CFS) supplement of 1969 that was the union’s belated attempt to deal with the issue that haunts the ILWU to this day. The CFS agreement provided that longshoremen would stuff and unstuff the freight from containers, meaning that the work that was formerly being done in the hull of a ship would be done in loading and unloading a container filled with goods for multiple consignees. This work was required to be done union or the employers would be fined $10,000 per container.

The language of the CFS agreement provided for a fifty-mile radius from the port within which the CFS language would be in effect. This was the union’s half-hearted and ineffectual way of capturing the “functions” that used to be part of loading a traditional cargo ship. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the courts have clearly held that this provision is unenforceable, but this continues to be the union’s feeble and unsuccessful response to a vast increase in inland employment in the supply chain. Nowadays, there are not multiple consignees to a container. In the case of Wal-Mart or Amazon, they import thousands of containers annually and unload them in third party warehouses or their own distribution centers. This is where there has been massive growth in employment, so while the union can bash on dock automation, the employers are running for touchdowns inland.

I played defensive tackle in high school. I was big and strong and loved physical contact. When an opposing player came out to block me, I loved to pound the blocker into the turf with sharp blows from my forearms. I was often effective in doing that. But I’ll never forget my defensive line coach rolling an embarrassing bit of game film forward and backward showing me devastating my immediate opponent but also showing the offensive ball carrier running right by me for a big gain. The coach would say, “Nice job on the blocker, Pete, but the point is to tackle the ball carrier.”

This is a good metaphor for the struggle going on now on the West Coast with respect to the marine supply chain. Let’s keep our eye on the ball carrier and the future of the supply chain. It has been amply demonstrated that growth in employment in the marine supply chain for a long time has been away from employment on the docks.

Automation in the Port of Los Angeles

Recently the ILWU has been engaged in a massive battle in the Port of Los Angeles with Maersk, the Danish logistics company, over the automation of Pier 400, which will cost the ILWU dozens of jobs and lots of work hours. Powerful mobilizations of the San Pedro/Wilmington community and the workforce have taken place attempting to stop the introduction of those robots through the political process, which were agreed to by the ILWU in a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding with the Pacific Maritime Association, the employers’ group. The settlement of this battle has resulted in the ILWU getting a commitment from Maersk to fund training for ILWU members to do robot maintenance and repair — pretty much what the union negotiated in 2008.

The merits of this settlement can be debated, but two things are clear: the robots are coming, and Maersk has its eye on the ball and its corporate future, and is engaged in its own “March Inland.” In a fascinating recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Maersk reveals its plans to achieve a company makeover from 80 percent of their earnings coming from container shipping to “[h]opefully a couple of years from now will be much closer to a 50-50 scenario between ocean and non- ocean services,” Chief Executive Soren Skou says. Maersk already runs twenty warehousing and distribution centers in California, New Jersey, Texas, and Georgia. Five of them operate in the Southern California basin.

Maersk realizes that to meet the needs of Wal-Mart and Amazon, they need to focus on a streamlined factory-to-store door or warehouse door service. Amazon is already in the Non Vessel Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC) business, whereby they buy space on ships for their own use, but also sell unused space to other customers. They could soon contemplate buying and operating their own ocean carriers. Maersk is not alone in this strategic approach. Other major carriers like the French company CMA CGM are engaged in the same strategy extending their employment reach inland. CMA CGM acquired CEVA Logistics in April.

Imagine if the resolution of the dustup in the Port of Los Angeles had been Maersk granting organizing rights to the ILWU in all its subsidiary warehouses and information service centers. This would result in hundreds if not thousands of new members and jobs, and it would solidly root the union beyond the waterfront and in the broader community. Most of these warehouse workers are low-wage immigrant workers without benefits. The rising demographic tide of Southern California would be embraced by the “Lords on the Docks,” breaking their political and community isolation from the broader working class of the Southern California basin and establishing a long-term future for the union.

Peter Cole has done us a great service in his comparative history. He has demonstrated that the social and political context of unions is important in determining their course of struggle, and he has highlighted the great impact that dockers have had on social justice struggles.

The future can be written, not by doting on the docks but instead by embracing the ILWU’s history of the “March Inland.” The union must conceptualize itself as a logistics union and move beyond the waterfront to make new history. The survival of the union and its power depend on such a strategy.