Home / General / Book Review: Peter Cole, Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area

Book Review: Peter Cole, Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area

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I had the opportunity to review Peter Cole’s excellent new book at H-Net and since that’s a public resource, I thought I would share the first few paragraphs here:

Peter Cole’s superb examination of dockworkers in San Francisco and Durban, South Africa, provides an excellent model of how to write comparative labor history, weaving together a compelling tale around issues of racial justice, international labor solidarity, and resistance to job-destroying technological change. Building on his previous book on interracial unionism among Philadelphia dockworkers, Cole tells a story about some of the world’s most militant workers fighting for justice through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What differentiates these workers from other laborers is their global perspective developed from loading and unloading products from around the world, creating a militancy regardless of where they toiled that is perhaps unprecedented among the world’s workers.

These dockworkers have strikingly different histories. In San Francisco, the Australian immigrant radical Harry Bridges organized one of the greatest strikes in the twentieth-century United States when dockworkers walked off the job in 1934, leading to a general strike, federal mediation, and eventually the creation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a left-leaning union heavily invested in workplace democracy and international labor solidarity, especially Local 10 in the Bay Area. In apartheid South Africa, Durban workers had no such ability to form recognized unions, lived in shacks near the waterfront, and experienced dire poverty under a racist regime that tightly controlled their actions.

Yet no matter their nationality, dockworkers also have tremendous power. At least in San Francisco and Durban, they used that power to promote racial justice, both at home and abroad when possible. Durban workers shared an ethnic background (most were Zulu), and their tight quarters created a culture of solidarity amid great poverty that coalesced into collective action for higher wages. That sense of outrage and justice could lead to expressions of power on the waterfront, in support of both their own rights and the rights of other workers struggling with oppression. San Francisco workers managed to gain their own hiring hall and integrate their workforce well before mandated by civil rights legislation. The Bay Area workers made connections with Martin Luther King Jr., acted in solidarity with the United Farm Workers, had many members who were also Black Panthers, and spoke out against apartheid themselves, even refusing to move cargo heading to South Africa. Shortly after Nelson Mandela left prison, he thanked the ILWU by name while speaking in Oakland.

Cole credits Durban dockworkers with a similar history. They played a critical role in the Durban fight against apartheid, laying much of the groundwork for the 1972 mass movement against the South African government that put a new jolt into a lagging anti-apartheid movement. As early as 1935, Durban dockworkers refused to load meat to feed the Italian invaders of Ethiopia and in 2008 refused to unload a shipload of weapons and ammunition headed for Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe.

The whole book is a model of comparative history and history written for activists who want a usable past to create, in this case, international labor solidarity.

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