ILWU Leads the Labour Movement in Antiwar Struggle:
An Interview with Clarence Thomas, Regional "Saving Lives" Campaign Representative, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10
By Alison Bodine
On International Workers’ Day, May 1 2008, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union organized a day-long work stoppage at ports all along the West Coast of the United States to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below is an interview with prominent US labour and antiwar activist Clarence Thomas about these historic antiwar actions.
Fire This Time: How did the idea to hold the May 1st actions come about? Shutting down the ports on May 1st was accomplished very well. Did the ILWU have any other goals that were also accomplished?
Clarence Thomas: That was the goal and it was a major goal. And anytime that you can get 25,000 workers to do something and trade unions are not monolithic, and the ILWU is no exception. This did not come about with, you know, one fell swoop so to speak. We have been building for this for a long time. In 2004 we had the Million Worker March.
I think that that is the genesis of all of this because it was a rank and file initiative. In other words, the Million Worker March was a resolution that was written here in Local 10, it was adopted to the longshore division, and its basic principles have to do with rank and file unity and rank and file leadership in action. This thing that we did on Mayday is the same basic principle. Now one of the things that happened during the Million Worker March is that we ran into tremendous opposition from the Democratic Party who wanted no kind of arousal of the working class two weeks before a national election with John Kerry and John Edwards. That was because those two candidates weren’t offering any kind of a workers’ agenda and so there was no need to build up any unnecessary expectations.
Now, this initiative was also rank and file led. In other words, it was a resolution that came from this local for Mayday, but that goes back to 2005 when Local 10 sent a resolution to the caucus regarding Mayday and it basically was putting forward the idea of reclaiming it, you know, so that we could once again get reacquainted with the roots of social justice activism on the part of trade unions, linking that to the 8-hour work day, the Haymarket struggle, the end to child labor, and those sort of issues, as opposed to identifying with Labor Day, September 3, which is devoid of any historical connection whatsoever.
Well, so the caucus did not embrace that. So, Local 10 had a rally at Justin Herman Plaza in 2005, rather small, but we did it. Part of the reason why we put that on is because at the conclusion of the Million Worker March mobilization in Washington, on October 17, 2004, all of the organizers got together from all over the country and there were merely four or five core objectives that we wanted to accomplish. And one of them was to reclaim Mayday.
I was in New York in 2005. There was a very large march and rally in Union Square, thousands of people turned out, but the local media decided to put more focus on a dog show that took place. 2006 we also had a resolution for Mayday, this time in connection with the immigrant rights struggle. And we participated with the immigrant rights mobilization, we marched from Justin Herman Plaza all the way down Market St. to Civic Center, and I spoke. There was also a very important development that took place that day and that development had to do with the immigrant truckers, who are independent truckers, port drivers. At the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, 90% of the port was basically rendered shut-down because the truckers didn’t go to work. Not because Longshoremen didn’t go to work, but because the truckers didn’t go to work. That was the first of the No Work boycott, I guess that was the name of it, but pretty much that was the one that really attracted all of the attention. The one that they had in the subsequent year 2007, I wrote a resolution. The resolution was very similar to the one that we had this year. The only difference was we were asking our employer in this port to have our day off so that we could have our union meeting. And we were going to be mobilizing around the question of ending the war in Iraq, also around the question that some local ILWU members had lost their jobs to Hornblower. Hornblower is a ferry service that takes people to Alcatraz. Well, the person that owns that business is a long term supporter of the Bush administration, and its now a non-union outfit, it’s a non-union outfit now that has the contract. Blue and Gold Fleet services had it before and now this other group, Hornblower, has it. So, we had done a number of demonstrations at I think Pier 33, I think, they are right next to Pier 35, the passenger terminal, in demand of their getting their jobs back. So part of the resolution in 2007 called for and supported those workers, immigrant rights question, linking immigrant rights to the ILWU. One of the founding members of our union, Harry Bridges, was an immigrant worker, not from South of the border, but from Down Under, from Australia, but the ILWU, and in particular Local 10 is the most racially diverse local on the West Coast. There are more African Americans in this port then there are anywhere else on the West Coast. This is the social conscious of the ILWU in the Longshore division.
So, we had put a request in to the Union to have our meeting date changed and what happened was that our employer disagreed. But, we also had a president who was compliant with the employer. And he went against the union’s decision to hold our union meeting on that day and as a result of that, we did not shut down. There was a resolution that was sent into the caucus to get them to recess on May 1st and to get them to participate in the immigrant rights rally in San Francisco. It was a very close vote. I wasn’t on the caucus at that time, so what happened was there was a great deal of concern, I think, on the part of members that really wanted to do something around Mayday, and they thought that that vote was so close that they should come up with some sort of compromise, well the compromise that was reached was that people could voluntarily leave the caucus if they wanted to the rally at Civic Center. Now mind you, the immigrant rights really wasn’t as large as the one in 2006. Well, we were able to get the International President, Bob McElrat, to participate, at Jack Heymen’s urging. So he did speak, and he was the highest ranking union official to speak that day, I think in any part of the country. So these were things that were all part of the build-up. It is important to point these things out, because people need to understand that these things don’t just take place mystically. And some people have this idea that, “oh well, this is the ILWU and they have a left tradition anyway, so its really no big deal for them to do this”, but I think that that’s an incorrect analysis, you know, so this is the culmination of really a lot of work.
The resolution that was written this time around the Mayday and “No Peace, No Work,” getting out of Iraq, getting out of Afghanistan was written, not by me, but by Jack Heymen, and one of the things that really swayed the discussion had to do with Veterans of the Vietnam War who were members of the caucus who got up and spoke very passionately about how we had waited, we had voted for the Democrats, they had voted for the Democrats to end the war and that they had not done it. We had adopted a resolution at our convention in 2003 to oppose the war and the occupation. But, as significant as that was with respect to the debate that we had and were able to sway, or should I say that we were able to confront more conservative elements in the union and get that through. There wasn’t any kind of action that came out of that, it was just a resolution. Resolutions are important for what they are. But, people were aware of that and they remembered it because I called their attention to it, you know during the course of the caucus. That this was something that we had done in 2003 and in 2005 Local 10 had shut down the port here in the Bay Area, on March 19th commemorating the, I think it must have been the second anniversary of the invasion and occupation. We had a union meeting on that day, so all of these things sort of served as building blocks for this. And it takes time, you know, to make these kind of things happen.
Now, just to show you the importance that the ruling class, the powers that be, how they understood the significance of what it is we are doing - I was in New York the day before the May 1st action. I was talking to some activists on the East Coast and they were telling how there were permits that had been sought in the City of New York, in Manhattan, where truckers were actually going to bring their rigs into Manhattan on Mayday and they were going to stage a demonstration. Some of them were even going to try to go to Wall Street. 24 hours before Mayday, those permits were pulled by Mayor Blumberg and the chief of police, so, I was poised to read headlines that West Coast port shut-down, Wall-street shut-down because of truckers, but that was going to be based upon the issues of increase in fuel and solidarity with ILWU members. So that didn’t happen because they pulled that, but I think that it is important to note that, you know, that we were seeking solidarity action with the truckers. But, the truckers are non-union, they get paid on a piece-meal basis. They’re called independent operators, but in fact, here in the Bay Area we have term called “sweat-shop on wheels.” Which basically means that the trucks that they drive are like sweatshops - they’re old, they’re polluting.
FTT: I know that the action also got support from other sections of the ILWU and other unions across the United States, can you tell me about this support? Also, can you tell me about the support this action got across the US and internationally, and within the community?
Clarence: I guess one of the most important solidarity actions to take place were from the Iraqi workers, the Iraqi Longshore workers, who shut-down two ports in Basra, for one hour. I have to look at my notes, you may already have that information. But, you know there’s, I was in Baghdad in 2003, part of a five-team trade-union delegation that went to Baghdad for the purpose of getting a first-hand account of what was actually happening to Iraqi trade-unionists during the course of the occupation under Paul Bremmer, Coalition Provisional Authority, meeting with trade-unionists there, meeting with oil workers, longshoremen, and so we were able to develop a face-to-face relationship. After our visit a few years later Iraqi trade-unionists came here. They made, I think, two visits here to the Bay Area, they were here last year, they made a national tour and we had members of the Iraqi oil workers’ union who came here on a delegation speak here at the hall, I meant to bring you a copy of that audio too, maybe I will get it to you some other time.
In any event, we have been doing a number of things in order to build solidarity with Iraqi workers, communicating to American workers about what’s actually taking place on the ground in Iraq with respect to Iraqi trade unionists. How Bremmer has used a law that was implemented in 1987 by the Baathists that basically re-classified public-sector workers and public-enterprise workers as civil service, and not union members. And how it really creates for an anti-union environment, and how that was being used by the Coalition Provisional Authority and event by the current regime to create the pre-disposition for privatization.
I think that, you know, one has to understand the entire context regarding what it is that we have been doing around the anti-war effort. There was an anti-war conference here at Local 10, I think it was this past October. And one of the things that I talked about was that rallies, marches, resolutions, while they may be vehicles for organizing anti-war activity, it is not going to end the war because on occasions Bush has referred to millions of anti-war activists in the streets as being “focus-groups” and Cheney, when he was asked a question about 80% of the American people being against the war he told the journalists, if you want to call them that, and he said “so?”, and there was this long pause and when he kinda like felt like she had had trouble handling that answer and he tried to soften it by telling her that, you know, public opinion polls and all of this kind of business, don’t drive our thinking. Neo-liberal, global ideology drives it, but that sort of gives you, you know, some idea of how this thing just didn’t happen overnight. It has been about years of struggle.
FTT: Before when you said that rallies and marches were not going to stop the war in Iraq, what do you think will stop the war in Iraq?
Clarence: Some of the most progressive action taken by workers has been the immigrant workers and the action that they have taken, like I mentioned to you about how 90% of Long Beach and LA, ports of LA and Long Beach were shut down. 40% of all imports from Asia comes and goes through those ports, they have the largest container port in the US and 90% of that shut down, non-union workers, I told you the power of workers.
What I am suggesting is that when Longshoremen, Teamsters, independent truckers, let’s not forget Airline Pilots. If we don’t work, we really show the power of the working class. That’s the message. That’s what’s going to stop the war. You know, when elected officials, the administration, whatever it may be…Wall Street, they all get the message. Yeah, that’s what will stop the war. It is not up to trade unions, although I think that trade unions are in a very unique position because they have an infrastructure. They have an ability to do certain things, but are they going to do that? And I think that that is the key thing.
You have to understand that this was not something that was embraced by the trade union movement. This was not something that was on the radar screen, much like the Million Worker March wasn’t on the radar screen either, and it wasn’t supposed to happen. I keep going back to this Million Worker March because it was the first time in recent memory where rank and filers have mobilized in our nation’s capitol, independent of trade union officialdom. When you can organize something and have former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, now affiliated with International Action Center, you can have known activists like Dick Gregory and Danny Glover, people like Brenda Stokely, who is formerly with AFSME in New York City, and other trade unionists from all over the country. And then from Japan and from Haiti, from South Africa, what you are basically saying is that, you know, we can organize and mobilize in our own name, that’s what happened. And then our leadership very quickly told our employers, “We’re not leading this, this is the rank and file.” They used the term “it’s voluntary.” I prefer to say it’s rank and file leadership, it’s rank and file action. We were not in any discouraged, there might have been a little bit of confusion from the fact that the leadership was saying one thing and we were doing another, but the way that we look at that is we’re the rank and file. That decision that was made took place at the caucus. Till such time as that vote is revisited and that changed, because, we’re not slaves and we proved that. We can take off, you know, there are certain kinds of contractual obligations that the hall has to open at certain times to take jobs and all of that, but we don’t have to work. I always like to say that Longshoremen are some of the most highly skilled workers in the world, with one of the most important jobs in the world because all of the cargo, all of the Maritime cargo which is automobiles, i-Pods, tennis shoes, foodstuffs, most of that is moved by ship. We’re the ones that do that. So we are very, very critical to the global economy, to the national economy, local economy, so that is one of the reasons why the Bush administration intervened in our contract negotiations in 2002, invoked Taft-Hartley against the union on the heels of the employers having a strike and locking us out for 10 days. But we’re workers with a consciousness, a political consciousness, and there are so many things that we have done that I am certain you know about. From refusing to unload cargo from South Africa, we took that action in 1984 at the Nedlo in Kimberly, at Pier 80 in San Francisco. The actions that we have taken around the loading of cargo, arms destined for Chile after the assassination and coup against Salvador Allende. The list just goes on and on with things. I am sure you are familiar with Paul Robison, he was an honorary member of the ILWU and that happened six years after the founding of this union and many of our former members who have passed on now were good friends of his. He performed at our caucuses conventions, at our picket lines and so forth. Dr. Martin Luther King was made an honorary member of Local 10 in 1967, one year before he was assassinated, he spoke right here at this hall. We have a long, long history of taking positions on matters of foreign policy. We believe that a peaceful world without war, because it’s the working class that fights wars, that that’s a cornerstone for international workers’ solidarity, and for workers to be able to earn a living and survive. But I think that we wrote a new chapter with this action and it is still resonating in the community.
It resonated so much in the community that one of the oldest movie theaters in Oakland, the Grand Lake Theater actually had a solidarity message up on the marquee for a whole week leading up to Mayday, and you’re talking about thousands of people seeing that marquee from freeways, it’s a major thoroughfare.
The foundations of trade union activism I think we told the world that we still understand it, we still embrace it. That is not to say that everybody who is a member of our union is a lefty. That’s not the case at all. But, members understand what men have died for in this union. We have had members that died in 1934 here in San Francisco. Nicholas Berry and Howard Bedois, I believe. Those two individuals were shot in the back by the police in the great strike of 1934, the coast-wide strike of all dock workers. The main reason for that was the right to have a union hall where we could have equal distribution of equal-opportunity jobs, that we wouldn’t have to engage in the shape-up, where people used to gather around and straw-bosses would pick and choose who could work based on ethnicity and bribery and all that kind of stuff. So, our members understand that about our union. And no matter what your political ideology is, you understand the ILWU way, that’s the reason why we were able to do what we did, ‘cuz we still have those core values and we still have that infrastructure in place, bottom-up, not top-down. As a matter of fact, it was better that the employer did not grant us the green light to have our stop-work meeting, because through struggle our members, the rank and file, feel something, we’ve been through something together.
FTT: What’s next?
Clarence: Well, I’ve been invited to Canada to speak to the Canadian Peace Alliance and the Canadian Labor Congress. That’s one of the things that Harry Bridges firmly believed in, that is, rank and filers visiting other rank and filers around the world and developing those relationships. That’s something that we really have encouraged here.
FTT: Thank you.
Back to Article Listing