The global economy appears seamless. Distance magically vanishes as goods are delivered to your doorstep from far-away places. But there’s a hidden material reality to transporting those goods, as well as to the people who do the work to move them. Since more than 75 percent of goods are still moved by water, the majority of these people are sailors and dockworkers.
Peter Cole, author of “Dockworker Power,” points out that dockworkers — also known as longshore workers — occupy a crucial choke point in the global economy. They have power because speedy and efficient loading and unloading of ships is critical to global trade. They have also been particularly supportive of the struggles of workers and others far away from ports in which they work. Cole attributes this internationalist theme to regular contact between maritime workers all over the world.
Cole compares the recent history and activism of dockworkers in the San Francisco Bay area and Durban, South Africa, from the 1950s to the present. There were, of course, many differences. San Francisco’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU Local 10) was a particularly militant, radical and effective union from the 1930s on. Durban dockworkers, on the other hand, worked under a White supremacist government that denied them the right to unionize and which “deported” militant workers back to their “homelands” outside the city.
Nevertheless, similarities in the work, which involved casual and unpredictable hiring, the need for ad hoc cooperation and the exposure to global information, led to solidarity in both locations. Durban workers, while not as powerful as San Francisco workers, were some of the most militant South African workers, and often sparked new upsurges in organizing against the apartheid regime.
Because of its radical roots, the ILWU, which started out as an almost all-White union, chose to challenge racial inequality from its inception, using its control of hiring on the waterfront to recruit extensively among African-American workers who flooded into the Bay Area during and after World War II. The ILWU hiring system put new recruits on an equal footing, even when it meant reduced work for long-time workers. The union also pushed for integration in housing, and, as it became majority African-American in the 1950s, provided funding and volunteers for the Civil Rights Movement.
Both the ILWU Local 10 and Durban dockworkers have a history of striking in solidarity with workers’ struggles in other countries and other parts of their own country – as examples, the ILWU helped spark the anti-apartheid movement in the United States when it refused to unload cargoes for South Africa, and workers in Durban refused to load armaments going to Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime in Zimbabwe.
Containerization hit both ports hard. Productivity rose tremendously, while the workforce was cut to about a fourth of its earlier size. In the Bay Area, the ILWU was able to negotiate contracts that mitigated the effect of layoffs with generous retirement options and large raises in pay for the remaining workers, although the trade-off seems to have been a weakening of safety rules and of the union-controlled hiring hall. In Durban, the workers absorbed all of the costs of containerization and none of the benefits, although with the end of apartheid they were eventually able to unionize and gain a degree of power over the work process. As Cole points out, their differing experiences indicate that the impact of technological change on workers and communities largely depends on who has control of the process — because the ILWU had, and still has, tremendous power on the waterfront, it was able to soften the impact in a way that didn’t happen in South Africa.
Studies of present-day dockworkers are rare, and Cole reminds the reader of that over and over, finding it “shocking” or “curious” that this or that point was ignored by other historians. The text is quite repetitious — Cole unnecessarily reiterates his main points each time he discusses a particular example. The book lacks depth in its analysis of why dockworkers in particular tend to be radical and have maintained their radicalism through decades of technological change. And while Cole makes a point of drawing connections between both sets of dockworkers, and the broader social-justice organizing around them, his analysis of how that happened seems fairly superficial.
In a particularly unconvincing passage he speculates — without offering any evidence — that political interchange occurred between ILWU militants and Black Panthers in the Bay Area because members of both organizations frequented a particular bar. The discussion of Durban dockworkers also clearly suffers from a lack of documentary evidence about how their organizing occurred during the apartheid era, an understandable problem since they had to operate in secret.
Still, Cole’s study of dockworkers makes the benefits of militant unionism clear — not just at the workplace, but in the community, and he opens a window into an occupation where workers definitely have the power and the willingness to stand up for justice.
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