An injury to one is an injury to all

Historian Peter Cole’s book on dockworkers in apartheid South Africa and San Francisco gets beyond slogans to vital historical truths.

Meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Johannesburg, 1985. Image credit UN Photo via Flickr CC.

The seemingly disconnected August 3, 1959 Pidgiguiti strike and ensuing massacre of more than 50 African dock and ship workers in colonial Guinea-Bissau, and the 1984 boycott of South African goods on a South African ship in San Francisco harbor by Local 10 Longshoremen Union, are related actions and together form part of the long continuum of labor actions by laborers, especially longshoremen and dockworkers on both sides of the Atlantic. These two historical events separated by two continents and an ocean underscore the importance and significance of Peter Cole’s new book on dockworkers in apartheid South Africa and San Francisco.

It is also very personal for me. I’ve had a long association with transnational union activism and with solidarity work by trade unionists. One of my starting points was in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1961—accompanied by Lea Goldblatt, who happened to be the daughter of the ILWU’s Secretary Treasurer, Louis Goldblatt—where I brazenly challenged a presentation by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish author of An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Myrdal famously argued in the two-volume study, published in 1944 and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, that the US failed African-Americans less through racial bias than through the failure of American institutions to uphold the Constitution in the defense of African-American rights. Myrdal was optimistic that democracy would triumph (too optimistic, he later conceded). Nonetheless, Myrdal’s study became a key resource and a famous footnote in the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education ruling that set the stage for desegregation.

At the Stockholm meeting I got up and criticized Myrdal for his failure to talk about how some sectors of organized labor in the US were attempting to fight racism. It was a belligerent move by an arrogant 17-year old. But my critique of Myrdal for dismissing class struggle is one that Ralph Ellison elaborated and leveled at him. Martin Luther King Jr. captured these failures in Myrdal’s argument, and in the American project, in his analysis of the necessity of considering economic justice as part of civil rights, a position of his that has largely been erased from King’s legacy until recently.

If we can now see Myrdal’s study as a corporate-financed makeover of US racism, Cole’s book shows us the possibilities that anti-racist labor organizing had and has for attacking and analyzing how systems of racial and capital oppressions are intertwined.

Cole’s work concentrates on the historical development of two sets of waterfront workers, one in Durban, South Africa, the other in San Francisco, California. The goal of Cole’s work is very clear and is achieved. He states it forthrightly when he writes:

This project compares the history of two sets of waterfront unions and their militant struggles against racism, experiences with containerization and solidarity with freedom struggles elsewhere—to draw out common and distinctive themes. In many nations and on every continent, dockworkers have proven among the most likely workers to strike and unionize.

One of the most impressive chapters in the book is when Cole discusses the 134-day strike by the ILWU in 1971-72. Exercising his skill as a trained historian, along with his political kinship with the ILWU, Cole takes the reader deep into the internal story of that critical piece of San Francisco labor history. Longshoreman, of ILWU Local 10 led by Leo Robinson, refused to offload any goods of South African origin. This puts the strikes not only in comparative perspective, but shows how unions in the US supported the global anti-apartheid movement. ILWU Local 10 had a long history of anti-racism and anti-apartheid work. Robinson, an African-American longshoreman, was a key agent in this movement, having joined the struggles for the rights of workers and anti-racism in his work.

Cole introduces the reader to riveting details about the values and lives of the ILWU leadership. Far too often has ILWU Harry Bridges been simplistically described as a “communist” labor leader, when, in fact, as Cole details, Bridges often took some quite conservative, almost pro-“capitalist” approaches, such as his proposal during the strike that the ILWU should abandon its independent stance and join forces with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union known for its conservative, self-serving approaches to labor issues.

Another part of Cole’s research that is unprecedented and riveting in its path-making character is that on “Striking for Social Justice.” Very impressively, Coles puts forth an analysis of how the ILWU’s Local 10 initiated a practice of trade unionism that goes far beyond the traditional “bread and butter” wages issues to confront and embrace issues that were grounded in a global fight to end the South African apartheid system and expand support initiatives for liberation throughout the Southern African region. Cole prophetically illuminates a type of trade unionism that would later characterize the 2015-2019 school teacher strikes all over the United States, especially in Chicago.

Cole has written a very readable and vital, if not critical, book. In a period when so many people—notably in the US and particularly amongst youth, both white and people of color—have no idea of trade unions and the history of union struggles, to say that that ignorance must be addressed is one of the fundamental understatements of the Trump era. Cole’s contribution compares to the resonant work of Brenda Wall and Ken Luckhardt, who in the 1980-82 period produced two epic works, Organize or Starve: The History of the South African Congress of Trade Unions and Working for Freedom: Black Trade Union Development in South Africa Throughout the 1970s.

The serious reader of this book will come away with an enhanced understanding of what unionized dock and port workers have fought for all over the world. They will grow in sensitivity to what all working people are up against (whether in Maputo, Mozambique or Seattle, Washington) in this era of the ruthless ascendency and transformation of capital worldwide.

Further Reading

Back to class

The emphasis on identity and difference act to temper the radical potential of South Africa’s youth. They need an education on class politics.