- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
To honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of police repression, dockworkers on both coasts are taking action at noon today (ET), to coincide with the funeral of George Floyd in Houston. On the West Coast, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will be stopping work and taking an eight minute, forty-six second moment of silence.
Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with one of the protest organizers, Clarence Thomas — former Secretary Treasurer of ILWU Local 10 — about the action and the need for labor unions to take a lead in the struggle against police violence and racism. As the resolution calling for this action explains, “all lives will matter when Black lives matter because an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Why did ILWU decide to organize this work stoppage today?
Fighting police murders and white supremacy is a class question. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of black people, and the vast majority of victims of police repression, are working class.
For many years now, ILWU, and Local 10 in particular, has been protesting the racist policing of African Americans. And we understand that the way these murders can be stopped is when there are economic consequences. The working class has leverage — and we need to use it.
We think that the most effective way to stop police terror is by the working class taking action at the point of production: if the working class is going to be heard, labor must shut it down. That’s why today at 9 AM [Pacific Time], all the longshore locals on the West Coast will be taking an eight minute, forty-six second moment of silence in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of racist police terror. I also understand that the ILA [the longshore union on the East Coast] will be taking a similar action.
We believe that labor should strive to be at the vanguard of all social struggles, because we understand that labor has a responsibility to fight for those beyond just our own membership. Think about the demand of the eight-hour workday and the elimination of child labor — these were demands that unions a century ago won for the whole working class. It’s that kind of spirit we need to revive today.
This is the tradition of the militant labor movement. And that’s why there is such a concerted effort by those in power to give workers amnesia about our own history — to separate us from the real history of our class and our militancy. Learning about our real past reveals the real contradiction between the interests of labor and those who own the means of production.
Do you think the labor movement is doing enough to fight against police repression and racial injustice?
No. Labor cannot continue to remain silent on racist policing. Anytime a black person or person of color is killed by the police, workers and unions need to be shutting down their workplaces. Protest is one thing, actual resistance and action at the point of production is something else.
Unions should be raising demands for defunding the police and revoking the membership of police associations from our labor councils. The police in many cities are part of the central labor councils — we think this is a major contradiction because cops are not a part of the labor movement. Whenever there’s a strike, the police are called in to defend the bosses, intimidate workers, protect scabs. They always defend the powerful and the privileged.
Unfortunately, labor has forgotten that cops are the enforcers of the bosses. Think about Minneapolis, which has sparked this national revolt. Back in 1934 Minneapolis had a general strike led by the Teamsters, during which two striking truck drivers were killed by cops on Bloody Friday. And in San Francisco in the 1934 general strike led by longshore workers, we had Bloody Thursday, when police shot and killed two strikers.
In many instances, trade unionists just don’t know about that history of police killings. They don’t know how the rank-and-file in places like Minneapolis and San Francisco took on the National Guard, the police, the vigilantes, and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s and ‘40s. The rulers of this country don’t want workers to understand our power, to have class consciousness.
It seems like ILWU is definitely more of an exception than the rule in labor. Can you tell our readers more about ILWU’s anti-racist track record?
I’m proud to say that ILWU, and Local 10 in particular, has been in the vanguard of the labor movement when it comes to fighting white supremacy and police murder.
In 1967 Dr King spoke to an ILWU Local 10 meeting and became an honorary member. We took workplace actions to fight apartheid in South Africa. And back in 2010 we shut down the ports to demand justice for Oscar Grant, a young black man shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Eve. To my knowledge, that was the first time in the history of the modern labor movement that a work stoppage was organized against racist police terror. And for the past five we’ve shut down the ports on May Day to say no to this repression unleashed against African Americans.
One of the key reasons why ILWU Local 10 is the only predominantly African-American local on the West Coast — and one of the main reasons for our long-standing fight against racism — is that in 1934 leftist rank-and-file leaders of the strike like Harry Bridges (who was an immigrant from Australia) and Henry Schmidt (who was a member of the Communist Party) saw that black people were being used as scabs and they realized that they needed the support of black workers to win the strike. So Harry Bridges went to speak at black churches in the community and he said: “We want to offer you a new deal — a real new deal. If the black community supports the strike, we will fight for their inclusion in the union and for their rights.”
It was a blow against white supremacy and a major turning point. Long before affirmative action became widespread, Bridges and other leftists understood that discrimination is a tool of the bosses, it is used to divide the working class. Radicals understood that the interests of white workers were inextricably linked to the interests of black workers. They understood the intersection of race and class. Ever since, longshore jobs have represented good union jobs not just for the working class in general, but for the black working class in particular.
Where do you think the movement should go from here?
There is now a widespread recognition among young people and others that we need to fight white supremacy. But it’s one thing to protest, it’s another to build a movement. And we need to be able to engage the working class in struggle. Young people need to know that no matter how many people are out in the streets, to really win big transformational change you need workers. We need to organize in our own name, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties.
So what do we do now, after we captured the attention of the ruling class and world? We have to begin to organize and move to seize power, to win real change. And that type of change means fighting for transitional demands like defunding the police. Like removing police unions from our Central Labor Councils, defunding is a first great step.
In cities across the country, we keep on seeing cuts to social services, schools, and hospitals, but we never see cuts to police departments. They have the most advanced military surveillance equipment, while people who work in public hospitals are forced to use garbage bags and reuse masks. That should tell you something.
I also want to let your readers know about a big new development initiated by Local 10. This year, ILWU will be withholding its labor on Juneteenth — June 19, the holiday celebrating the ending of slavery in the United States. All twenty-nine ports on the West Coast will be shut down by the ILWU on Juneteenth for eight hours to demand an end to white supremacy, an end to police terror, and an end to the plans to privatize the port of Oakland — which would take away essential jobs for working-class African Americans in the Bay Area. And we’re calling on unions across the country to join us in this action on Juneteenth. It’s time. Labor must begin to take a lead in the fight against racist police terror.