Today members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters laid down their tools in a work stoppage for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the precise measure of time that George Floyd, handcuffed and helpless to resist, was forced to endure a policeman’s lethal knee on his neck. Killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, Floyd was buried today in Houston.
Trent Willis, president of ILWU Local 10, Keith Shanklin, president of ILWU Local 34, and Gabriel Prawl, former Secretary/ Treasurer of ILWU Local 52 in Seattle, all members of ILWU’s Committee Against Police Terror, conceived of bringing this powerful gesture into union workplaces as a way of honoring Floyd, who earned his livelihood as a truck driver and security guard. In connecting Floyd’s struggle for his last breath with workers’ struggles for survival in a drastically altered post-pandemic economy, they hope to point the way forward by demonstrating the power of the working class.
“Longshore workers probably understand capitalism better than anyone else,” said ILWU Spokesman Clarence Thomas. “If the cargo doesn’t come off the ship, that’s merchandise not sold. Stopping work for eight minutes and forty-six seconds is not a symbol, it’s an act that demonstrates the leverage of the working class.”
This is an important step because “the only way that we’ve been able to get any kind of concessions from the bosses is through withholding our labor.”
The People’s Strike, a recently formed network of resistance, has come together in the face of COVID-19 to spur the kind of deep and wide organizing needed to pave the way for the tactic they see as ultimately necessary—a global general strike. The group put out a call for people to join the unions’ collective vigil of power in quietude to honor the memory of George Floyd and all those murdered at the hands of the police—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Walter Scott, among others.
“I see this as being a critical connection between the younger generation who’ve really been disconnected from labor,” explained Kali Akuno of the People’s Strike, “to expose them to the power of their own creativity and the power of their labor.” Akuno says Black youth are struggling in various ways as they face a jobless future from the reality of a jobless present.
“This step that the ILWU, ILA and Teamsters are taking addresses the deep issues at the heart of COVID-19;” he explained, “the underlying white supremacy and racism, which are the reasons why the whole pandemic has played out so catastrophically for the Black community.”
Historically, ILWU has been at the forefront of the labor movement’s response to police murders. On October 23, 2010, it shut down five Bay Area ports demanding justice for Oscar Grant and jail for the killer cops. The union’s very inception derives from the police murder of six strikers in 1934 that led to a general strike in San Francisco that shut the entire city down for four days.
“At that time San Francisco was the number one port city in the world,” Thomas explained. Even the tale of how Black workers joined the industry is one of exploitation. “Before 1934, most of the Black Longshoremen were used as strike-breakers,” he instructed. “They used us to break the strikes, but they didn’t keep many of us on.”
He credits strike leader Harry Bridges, and other communists and leftists like Henry Schmidt, for changing that. “They went to the Black church and appealed to Black pastors to go into their congregations to address the parishioners, saying ‘we have a new deal to offer you, a real new deal. If you support us on the picket line, we will ensure your inclusion into the union.’ They made good on that promise,” he said.
The movie On The Waterfront starring Marlon Brando dramatized a discriminatory hiring practice called the “shape-up.”
“Bosses would pick and choose who can go to work based on ethnic group, nepotism, kickbacks, pitting one group against the other. It’s anti-democratic,” Thomas said, and its eradication was an essential strike demand. “African Americans wouldn’t have had any chance to work with that doggone shape-up in place,” he says. “Our numbers greatly increased after World War II.” With a Black majority membership, ILWU Local 10 considers racial discrimination and exploitation in adopting its positions.
“When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, nickel and other metals were destined to go to Italy, and longshore workers did not work that cargo,” he said. “After Manchuria was invaded scrap iron was destined for Japan, and longshore workers would not work that cargo, either.”
But new threats are on the horizon. Owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team, John Fisher, is pushing a real estate deal that would overwhelm the Port of Oakland with a 34,000 seat baseball stadium, 3,000 condominiums, a 400-room hotel and 1.9 million square foot retail space.
“People need to understand it for what it is,” Thomas said, suggesting a spectrum of violences against Black people: by police killings, by the denial of jobs, and “against ILWU Local 10 by the owner of the Oakland A’s at the only African-American port.”
The longshore jobs, which supplanted the railroad jobs, that replaced shipyard jobs in the Bay Area, represented upward mobility, dignity, Black labor empowerment and influence in the community, and, Thomas says, they will not be ceded. More actions are planned.
On June 8, it was decided by longshore presidents representing 29 ports up and down the coast to follow the lead of ILWU Local 10 to withhold its labor for eight hours on Juneteenth (June 19), the anniversary of the day in 1865 it’s said that enslaved people in Texas first learned of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
“It will be the first time that an international union has ever taken off from work for the purpose of commemorating Juneteenth,” Thomas said. “What kind of statement will that make to the political class—the Democratic party, the Republican Party, to Donald Trump?”
Thomas invites other unions to follow their lead in the Juneteenth action, and the People’s Strike invites all workers, unionized or not, to join the momentum to organize towards a global general strike.
Akuno says, “We are offering a platform for promoting already ongoing efforts to organize tenants, workers, mutual aid and anti-austerity, anti-imperialist forces and for connecting with many more organizations who share these aims in the struggle for liberation, and a society built on new foundations.”