Skip to main content Accessibility help

No Justice, No Ships Get Loaded: Political Boycotts on the San Francisco Bay and Durban Waterfronts*

  • Peter Cole (a1)


Using a comparative methodology, this essay examines how and why longshore workers in both the San Francisco Bay area and Durban demonstrate a robust sense of working-class internationalism and solidarity. Longshore workers are more inclined than most to see their immediate, local struggles in larger, even global, contexts. Literally for decades, workers in both ports used their power to advocate for racial justice at home and in solidarity with social movements globally. While such notions might seem outdated in the twenty-first century, as unions have been on the decline for some decades, longshore workers grounded their ideals in the reality that they still occupied a central position in global trade. Hence, they combined their leftist and anti-racist ideological beliefs with a pragmatic understanding of their central role in the global economy. While not the norm, these longshore workers’ attitudes and actions demand attention, as they challenge the notion that workers in recent decades are powerless to shape their world.

Appliquant une méthodologie comparative, cette essai examine comment et pourquoi les débardeurs, tant dans la région de la baie de San Francisco qu’à Durban, font preuve d'un robuste sens de l'internationalisme et de la solidarité de la classe ouvrière. Les débardeurs sont plus enclins que d'autres à voir leurs luttes immédiates et locales dans des contextes plus larges et même mondiaux. Pendant des décennies, littéralement, les travailleurs dans ces deux ports utilisèrent leur puissance pour militer pour la justice raciale dans leur pays et en solidarité avec des mouvements sociaux dans le monde. Si ces idées peuvent paraître démodées au XXIème siècle, les syndicats étant en régression depuis plusieurs décennies, les débardeurs enracinèrent leur idéal dans le fait réel qu'ils occupaient encore une position centrale dans le commerce mondial. De la sorte, ils combinèrent leurs convictions idéologiques de gauche et antiracistes avec une compréhension pragmatique de leur rôle central dans l’économie mondiale. Bien que n’étant pas la norme, ces attitudes et actions des débardeurs méritent notre attention, car elles réfutent l'idée que les travailleurs sont ces dernières décennies impuissants à façonner leur monde.

Traduction: Christine Krätke-Plard

Dieser Aufsatz untersucht, unter Verwendung einer komparativen Methode, wie und weshalb die Hafenarbeiter sowohl der San Francisco Bay als auch Durbans einen robusten Arbeiter-Internationalismus und eine ebenso robuste Solidarität aufweisen. Hafenarbeiter neigen mehr als die meisten dazu, ihre unmittelbaren, lokalen Kämpfe in umfassendere, sogar globale Kontexte einzuordnen. Arbeiter aus beiden Häfen setzten ihre Macht tatsächlich jahrzehntelang ein, um gegen rassistische Ausgrenzung in ihren Heimatländern einzutreten und sich mit Sozialbewegungen aus aller Welt zu solidarisieren. Solche Vorstellungen mögen zwar im 21. Jahrhundert veraltet erscheinen, sind doch die Gewerkschaften bereits seit einigen Jahrzehnten im Niedergang begriffen, doch die Hafenarbeiter stützten ihre Ideale auf der Realität, dass sie innerhalb des globalen Handels nach wie vor eine Schlüsselstellung einnahmen. So verbanden sie ihre linken und antirassistischen ideologischen Ansichten mit einem pragmatischen Verständnis ihrer Schlüsselrolle innerhalb der Weltökonomie. Die Einstellungen und Handlungen der Hafenarbeiter mögen nicht die Norm gewesen sein, verlangen aber dennoch nach unserer Aufmerksamkeit, da sie die Auffassung in Frage stellen, Arbeitern sei es in den letzten Jahrzehnten nicht möglich gewesen, ihre Welt zu gestalten.

Übersetzung: Max Henninger

Haciendo uso de una metodología comparativa este artículo examina cómo y porqué los trabajadores portuarios tanto del área de la bahía de San Francisco como los de la bahía de Durban manifiestan un sólido sentido de internacionalismo y solidaridad de la clase obrera. Los trabajadores de los muelles se inclinan más que otros sectores a imbricar sus conflictos locales e inmediatos en contextos más amplios y globales. De forma literal, durante décadas los trabajadores de las zonas portuarias citadas hicieron uso de su poder para defender la justicia racial en su propio entorno y la solidaridad con los movimientos sociales en un marco más global. Mientras tales nociones parecen haber quedado obsoletas en el siglo XXI, de la misma forma que se ha visto declinar la influencia de las organizaciones sindicales a lo largo de varias décadas, los trabajadores portuarios basaron sus ideales en la percepción real de que ellos todavía ocupaban una posición central en el comercio global. Por tanto, combinaron sus principios ideológicos izquierdistas y antirracistas con una concepción pragmática de su rol central en la economía global. Así, aunque no sea lo más habitual, tanto las actitudes como las acciones de estos trabajadores portuarios deben de ser objeto de atención en tanto que supusieron un reto a la idea de que a lo largo de las últimas décadas la capacidad de los trabajadores por configurar su propio mundo ha ido en decadencia.

Traducción: Vicent Sanz Rozalén



Hide All

Thanks to Ralph Callebert, Jim Gregory, Moon-Ho Jung, Nelson Lichtenstein, Prexy Nesbitt, Kathryn Oberdeck, Peter Rachleff, James Thindwa, Henry Trotter, and Lucien van der Walt, along with the anonymous referees and editors of this journal. Thanks to ILWU and SATAWU members, especially Alex Bagwell, Jane Barrett, Joseph V. Dube, Bhekitemba Simon Gumede, Jack Heyman, Howard Keylor, KZN Chairperson Mashiya, Herb Mills, Leo Robinson (who just “crossed the bar” in January 2013), Harvey Schwartz, and Gene Vrana.



Hide All

1. “Rally at Pier in Protest of South African Apartheid”, Associated Press, 1 December 1984.

2. Woodrum, Robert H., “Everybody Was Black Down There”: Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields (Athens, OH, 2007)

3. Godwin, Peter, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe (New York, 2011)

4. This essay evolved out of a conference at the University of Washington in Seattle on race and radicalism on the US West coast, so devotes more attention to the US side of my project.

5. Korstad, Robert R., Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2003)

6. Friedman, Steven, “Before and After: Reflections on Regime Change and its Aftermath”, Transformation, 75 (2011), pp. 412

Glaser, D., “A Reflection on the Von Holdt–Plaut Debate”, Transformation, 7 (1988), pp. 8086

7. Alexander, Peter and Halpern, Rick, “Introduction: Comparing Race and Labour in South Africa and the United States”, pp. 5–18

8. Sam Davies et al. (eds), Dock Workers: International Explorations in Comparative Labour History, 1790–1970, 2 vols (Aldershot, 2000), I, esp. pp. 4–5

Davis, Colin, Waterfront Revolts: New York and London Dockworkers, 1946–61 (Urbana, IL, 2003)

9. My understanding of comparative and transnational approaches to labor history have benefited immeasurably from conversations with and writings of Lucien van der Walt.

10. Many terms exist to describe the work of loading and unloading ships – and their meanings vary across cultures. In the twentieth-century USA, the term generally used was “longshoreman”, though recently the gender-neutral longshore worker is sometimes used. “Stevedore” was more common in the early twentieth century and earlier, but sometimes stevedore referred to the worker and other times to foremen and hiring bosses. In South Africa, the most widely used term is “docker”, though “stevedore” was also used. This essay will use the terms longshoreman, longshore worker, and docker interchangeably; I choose to avoid using “stevedore” because its meaning varies.

11. Barnes, Charles B., The Longshoremen (New York, 1915)

Hobsbawm, Eric, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London, 1964)

Nelson, Bruce, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (Urbana, IL, 1990)

Cooper, Frederick, On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa (New Haven, CT, 1987)

Cole, Peter, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia (Urbana, IL, 2007)

12. Rediker, Marcus and Linebaugh, Peter, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, MA, 2000)

Shor, Fran, “Left Labor Agitators in the Early Twentieth Century Pacific Rim”, International Labor and Working-Class History, 67 (2005), pp. 148163

Marcel van der Linden, “On the Importance of Crossing Boundaries”, Labor History, 40 (1999), pp. 362365

Nelson, Bruce, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, NJ, 2001)

13. Levinson, Marc, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, NJ, 2006)

Fairley, Lincoln, Facing Mechanization: The West Coast Longshore Plan (Los Angeles, CA, 1979)

Dubbeld, Bernard, “Breaking the Buffalo: The Transformation of Stevedoring Work in Durban between 1970 and 1990”, International Review of Social History, 48 (2003), pp. 97122

14. Cole, Peter, “The Tip of the Spear: How Longshore Workers in the San Francisco Bay Area Survived the Container Revolution”, Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, forthcoming (2013)

15. Self, Robert O., American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ, 2003), pp. 159170

Murch, Donna, Living for the City: Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010)

16. Schwartz, Harvey, Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU (Seattle, WA, 2009), pp. 3845

17. Williams quotation in Schwartz, Solidarity Stories, pp. 38–45

18. Idem, “Dockers Stop Arms to Pinochet: The West Coast Longshore Union's 1978 Refusal to Load US Military Aid to Chile's Dictator, Augusto Pinochet”, Social Policy, 35:4 (2005), pp. 24–28 (quotation from 24).

19. ILWU Dispatcher, 5 October 1984, p. 2; conversations with Mills and his unpublished manuscript, Presente! (in possession of the author). The most recent international solidarity action of Local 10 members was against an Israeli ship in 2010 to protest Israeli attacks on an international flotilla of activists; “Historic Victory at Oakland Port – Israeli Ship Blocked from Unloading”, at, last accessed 25 June 2010.

20. Minter, William and Hill, Sylvia, “Anti–Apartheid Solidarity in United States–South Africa Relations”, in South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, III: International Solidarity, Part 2 (Pretoria, 2008), pp. 758

William Minter et al. (eds), No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950–2000 (Trenton, NJ, 2008), p. 182

21. F. Fisher and P.G. Mare (eds), The Durban Strikes 1973: “Human Beings with Souls” (Durban, 1974)

Hemson, David, “Class Consciousness and Migrant Workers: Dockworkers of Durban”, (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Warwick University, 1979)

Freund, Bill, Insiders and Outsiders: The Indian Working Class of Durban, 1910–1990 (Pietermaritzburg [etc.], 1995)

Callebert, Ralph, Urban Means Towards a Rural Goal: Livelihood Strategies of Dockworkers in Durban in the 1950s (Burlington, VT, 2010)

22. Callebert, Ralph Frans, “Livelihood Strategies of Dock Workers in Durban, c.1900–1959” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Queen's University, 2011), pp. 279–280

Kelley, Robin D.G., Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, 1996)

23. Hemson, David, “Beyond the Frontier of Control? Trade Unionism and the Labour Market in the Durban Docks”, Transformation, 30 (1996), pp. 83114

Paul Maylam and Iain Edwards (eds), The People's City: African Life in Twentieth-Century Durban (Pietermaritzburg, 1996), pp. 145173

24. Morris, Mike, “Stevedoring and the General Workers Union”, Part I, South African Labour Bulletin, 11 (1986), pp. 90–114

Marx, Anthony, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil (New York, 1998)

25. Hemson, David, “Dock Workers, Labour Circulation, and Class Struggles in Durban, 1940–59”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 4 (1977), pp. 88124

26. Lambert, Robert, “Political Unionism in South Africa: The South African Congress of Trade Unions, 1955–1965” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, 1988)

27. Davie, Grace, “Strength in Numbers: The Durban Student Wages Commission, Dockworkers and the Poverty Datum Line, 1971–1973”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 33 (2007), pp. 401420

Macqueen, Ian, “Re-Imagining South Africa: Black Consciousness, Radical Christianity and the New Left, 1967–1977” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Sussex, 2011)

Webster, Eddie, “The Impact of Intellectuals on the Labour Movement”, Transformation, 18 (1992), pp. 8892

28. Hemson, “Dock Workers, Labour Circulation, and Class Struggles”, p. 123

29. Friedman, Steven, Building Tomorrow Today: African Workers in Trade Unions, 1970–84 (Johannesburg, 1987), p. 44

30. Hemson, “In the Eye of the Storm”, p. 160

31. David Hemson, Martin Legassick, and Nicole Ulrich, “White Activists and the Revival of the Workers’ Movement”, in South African Democracy Education Trust, Road to Democracy in South Africa, II: 1970–1980 (Pretoria, 2004), pp. 248252

32. Group, Labour History, Durban Strikes (Salt River, 1987), pp. 67

Davie, “Strength in Numbers”, pp. 413–416

Hemson, “In the Eye of the Storm”, p. 160

Friedman, Building Tomorrow Today, pp. 45–46

Hemson, “Beyond the Frontier of Control?”, p. 84

Toli, Robinduth, “The Origins of the Durban Strikes, 1973” (M.A. thesis, University of Durban-Westville, 1991), p. 213

Morris, “Stevedoring and the General Workers Union”, pp. 107–108

Callebert, “Livelihood Strategies of Dock Workers in Durban”, pp. 290–291

33. Hemson, “Beyond the Frontier of Control?”, p. 84

L. Douwes Dekker et al., “Case Studies in African Labour Action in South Africa and Namibia (South West Africa)”, in R. Sandbrook and R. Cohen (eds) The Development of an African Working Class (London, 1975), pp. 219–226

34. Toli, “Origins of the Durban Strikes”, abstract and p. 1

35. Brown, Julian, “The Durban Strikes of 1973: Political Identities and the Management of Protest”, in William Beinart and Marcelle C. Dawson (eds), Popular Politics and Resistance Movements in South Africa (Johannesburg, 2010), pp. 3151

Sithole, Jabuilani and Ndlovu, Sifiso, “The Revival of the Labour Movement, 1970–1980”, in South African Democracy Education Trust, Road to Democracy in South Africa, II, pp. 187–241

36. Toli, “Origins of the Durban Strikes”, pp. 210–212

Margaret Kiloh and Archie Sibeko (Zola Zembe), A Fighting Union: An Oral History of the South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union (Randburg, 2000), pp. 6869

Hemson, “Class Consciousness and Migrant Workers”, p. 719

Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa (New Haven, CT, 1990), pp. 212

Sithole and Ndlovu, “Revival of the Labour Movement, 1970–1980”, p. 202

37. Anthony Carew, “South Africa: The Fight for Freedom” in Marcel van der Linden (ed.), The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (Bern [etc.], 2000), pp. 397413

38. Nesbitt, Francis Njubi, Race for Sanctions: African Americans against Apartheid, 1946–1994 (Bloomington, IN, 2004)

Cherny, Robert W., “Longshoremen of San Francisco Bay, 1849–1960”, in Dock Workers, I, pp. 102–140

39. Cherny, “Longshoremen of San Francisco Bay”, p. 134

40. Minter, No Easy Victories, pp. 182–183

41. Limb, Peter, “The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand”, in South African Democracy Education Trust, Road to Democracy in South Africa, III: International Solidarity, Part 2, pp. 907–982

42. ILWU Dispatcher, 9 July 1976, p. 1; 28 January 1977, pp. 1, 8; and 11 February 1977, p. 1; Wright and Robinson interviews; New York Times, 11 April 1977, n.p. Though the ILWU International Executive Board endorsed anti-apartheid actions in 1977, only Local 10 boycotted a ship.

43. Minter, No Easy Victories, pp. 182–183

44. I reconstructed strike details from interviews, conversations, and e-mails, especially with Bagwell, Heyman, Keylor, Robinson, and Wright; quotation from Bill Proctor e-mail to ILWU Yahoo Group, 18 January 2013 (ellipses in original).

45. ILWU Dispatcher, 11 December 1984, p. 8; David Bacon, “Work a Day for Freedom! A Short History of the Bay Area Free South Africa Labor Committee”:, last accessed 10 March 2011.

46. Bacon, “Work a Day for Freedom!”. In 1960 the ILWU and PMA signed the Mechanization and Modernization agreement that, among other aspects, included a minimum amount of hours (and, hence, pay) for ILWU members; Fairley, Facing Mechanization; Levinson, The Box, ch. 6.

47. ILWU Dispatcher, 11 December 1984, pp. 1, 8.

48. Telegram from Tom Luther [Lupher] to James Herman, 14 November 1984, in “Boycott of South African Cargo, 1984. Corres. from public, ILWU Attorneys, Int'l Officers”, ILWU Library, SF.

49. Information also from interviews with Bagwell, Heyman, Keylor, Robinson, and Wright.

50. Minter, No Easy Victories, pp. 182–183

51. Recording of “Nelson Mandela in Oakland”, 30 June 1990, CV 004, Freedom Archives, San Francisco; Bacon, “Work a Day for Freedom!”;, last accessed 4 November 2012.

52. On COSATU see:, last accessed 4 November 2012. Another excellent source for labor in late apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa is Karl von Holdt, Transition from Below: Forging Trade Unionism and Workplace Change in South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, 2003).

53. Webster, Edward, “Trade Unions and the Challenge of the Informalisation of Work”, in Sakhela Buhlungu (ed.), Trade Unions and Democracy: COSATU Workers’ Political Attitudes in South Africa (Pretoria, 2006), pp. 2143

Barchiesi, Franco, “Informality and Casualization as Challenges to South Africa's Industrial Unionism: Manufacturing Workers in the East Rand/Ekurhuleni Region in the 1990s”, African Studies Quarterly, 11 (2010), pp. 6785

54. Hamill, James and Hoffman, John, “‘Quiet Diplomacy’ or Appeasement? South African Policy towards Zimbabwe”, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, 98:402 (2009), pp. 373–384

Meersman, Brent, “The Legacy of Thabo Mbeki”, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 13 (2012), pp. 425432

Godwin, Peter, “Day of the Crocodile”, Vanity Fair, September 2008

55. Interview with Bhekitemba Simon Gumede (shop steward at Transnet) and Joseph V. Dube, SATWU offices, Durban, 29 July 2010.

56. Peter Cole and Lucien van der Walt, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905–1925”, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 12 (2011), pp. 6996

57. Hamill and Hoffman, “‘Quiet Diplomacy’ or Appeasement?”, p. 379

58. Essa, Azad, “Opposition to Israeli Cargo at Durban's Dock: The Significance of Dockworkers’ Refusal to Offload Israeli Goods”, Pambazuka 419 (12 February 2009)

59. “COSATU calls for International Boycott of Zimbabwe Arms Ship”; Essa, “Opposition to Israeli Cargo”;, last accessed 24 April 2011.

60. Mubangizi, John Cantius, “The Constitutional Protection of Socio-Economic Rights in Selected African Countries: A Comparative Evaluation”, African Journal of Legal Studies, 2 (2006), pp. 119

61. Dubbeld, “Breaking the Buffalo”; Webster, “Trade Unions and the Challenge of the Informalisation of Work”; Barchiesi, “Informality and Casualization”; idem, Precarious Liberation; Von Holdt, Transition from Below.

62. Friedman, “Before and After”, p. 4

63. Cole, Peter, “Longshore Union Strikes Against War”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 30 April 2008

64. Conversations and e-mail exchanges with SATAWU's Jane Barrett and ILWU's Jack Heyman. Swedish and Turkish longshore workers in ITF also protested Israeli ships over the Palestinian question; “Swedish Dockworkers Block Israeli Goods in Boycott Action”, and “Turkish Dock Workers’ Union Joins Boycott against Israel”, both at, last accessed 25 June 2010. A recent collection, from South Africa, analyzing apartheid in Israel is Na'eem Jeenah, Pretending Democracy: Israel, an Ethnocratic State (Johannesburg, 2012).

65. Levinson, The Box, esp. chs 5, 6, and 10; Dubbeld, “Breaking the Buffalo”; Herb Mills has written extensively and insightfully on the deleterious impacts of containers on longshore culture and power;

66. Peter Cole, “Longshore Union Strikes Against War”; “Historic Victory at Oakland Port – Israeli Ship Blocked from Unloading”; Clarence Thomas interview, KPFA, 5 April 2011, at:, last accessed 6 April 2011.

67. Erem, Suzan and Durrenberger, E. Paul, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5 (New York, 2008)

* Thanks to Ralph Callebert, Jim Gregory, Moon-Ho Jung, Nelson Lichtenstein, Prexy Nesbitt, Kathryn Oberdeck, Peter Rachleff, James Thindwa, Henry Trotter, and Lucien van der Walt, along with the anonymous referees and editors of this journal. Thanks to ILWU and SATAWU members, especially Alex Bagwell, Jane Barrett, Joseph V. Dube, Bhekitemba Simon Gumede, Jack Heyman, Howard Keylor, KZN Chairperson Mashiya, Herb Mills, Leo Robinson (who just “crossed the bar” in January 2013), Harvey Schwartz, and Gene Vrana.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Review of Social History
  • ISSN: 0020-8590
  • EISSN: 1469-512X
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-social-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed