The Transnational Activism of Dockworkers

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2015 ... March 6, 2020
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The Transnational Activism of Dockworkers

Peter Cole

"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" -- Harry Bridges, 1974.

Dockworkers have power. That’s the basic argument of my book which is named -- yes -- Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. Using comparative, transnational, and global labour historical methods, Dockworker Power brings to light perhaps surprising parallels in the experiences of dockers half a world away from each other. It’s the first comparative history of dockers in ports in what, loosely, have been called the Global North and the Global South, and among the first spanning both the traditional and the container eras of shipping. Historically, dockworkers have been able to change their conditions and promote social justice causes around the world. Notably, they continue to operate at a strategic choke point of the global supply chain, and they still appreciate their importance despite being largely invisible to the wider public.
Though many folks are unaware of it, including a surprising number of labour and maritime historians, the very term used for workers’ most powerful weapon has maritime origins! In 1768, as historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker recalled, sailors "struck (i.e. took down) the sails of their vessels, crippling the commerce of the empire’s leading city [London] and adding the strike to the armoury of resistance" (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000).

Dockworkers and sailors are particularly able to strike for, as the saying goes, "The ship must sail on time." Dockers understood that stopping work at a strategic moment had tremendous potential. Lou Goldblatt, a long-time leader of the union representing dockers on the US West Coast, explained: "The shipping industry has a feature that should never be underestimated -- the economic power of the longshoremen [the typical term in the US for dockers] is fantastic compared to most workers; the amount of economic leverage they have." Though most people might not appreciate this reality, employers are not among them.

Much of my book examines how dockers have used their power not only to benefit themselves but also to assist others. For one, dockworkers in each city drew on longstanding radical traditions to promote racial equality. Specifically, Durban dockers played a pivotal role in the struggle against apartheid while those in the San Francisco Bay Area greatly contributed to the African American civil rights movement. Considering both South Africa and the United States are societies built on the foundation of racial capitalism, antiracist actions taken by labour unions are particularly important to chronicle.

The book’s second major theme examines technological change. In both Durban and the Bay Area, dockworkers persevered when a revolutionary new technology -- container ships -- sent a shockwave of layoffs through the industry.

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