SAN FRANCISCO — Local 10 members and friends jammed the Henry Schmidt room at the union hall Dec. 3 to remember the union’s historic struggle against racism in South Africa.
Workers refuse to handle cargo
Twenty years before, the Nedlloyd vessel Kimberly remained tied to Pier 80 in San Francisco for 10 days while rank-and-file longshore workers refused to discharge its South African cargo. At that time, the white minority government of South Africa maintained a vicious system of racial separation called apartheid.
Each crew dispatched refused to work the vessel. Word spread along the coast, and the growing movement against South Africa’s racism took heart from the actions of the workers.
Across the bay, students at the University of California-Berkeley occupied the steps of the administration building the next spring and built a shanty town, which they occupied until they were brutally removed by the campus police. ILWU international officers Jimmy Herman, Rudy Rubio and Curtis McClain attended their rallies. Even former ILWU President Harry Bridges came out of retirement to join the demonstration. The students demanded the university rid itself of investments in companies that made profit off the institutional racism.
“Local 10’s struggle against apartheid began in 1958 with Bill Chester, later international vice president, and at that time regional director,” Local 10 retiree Leo Robinson, a veteran of the boycott, told the gathering. “He belonged to the United Negro Congress, a Black workers’ organization, and raised the question of apartheid, the first time it appeared in the records of the ILWU.”
Robinson and former Local 10 member Larry Wright (now in bosses’ Local 91) and others formed an education committee in 1976 to explain apartheid to the members.
Wright and Longshore Local 19’s Bill Procter, Clerk’s Local 34’s Eddie Gutierrez and Local 10 retirees Herb Mills and Howard Keylor and other veterans attended the celebration. Local 10 BA Jack Heyman chaired the event. Members attending got their books stamped for education credit.
Boycott call, 1962
The union’s history against apartheid goes back deep and wide. The Longshore Caucus called for a boycott of South Africa in 1962 and in December of that year. Local 10 members refused to cross an NAACP picket line protesting apartheid cargo on the Dutch ship Raki. Two years later the union opposed political trials of Black South African dockers. The ILWU’s International Convention in 1973 called for strict economic sanctions on South Africa to “take the profit out of racism and the employment of slave labor.”
In January 1977 the hapless Kimberly experienced her first trouble when she arrived in San Francisco with South African cargo. “There was a picket line thrown up around Pier 27 on Easter Sunday, and we didn’t work it,” Robinson told the gathering. “Five thousand people from the community showed up so we stood down on health and safety.”
Harry Bridges speaks
Harry Bridges’ “On the Beam” column in the June 25, 1976, Dispatcher said it all: “For years, all Americans with a shred of decency have understood that the situation — in which a tiny minority of white settlers completely control the destiny of millions of Blacks, totally excluding them from power — could not go on forever even though the whites had created what seemed to be a foolproof police state.
“But everyone knows that it is bound to fall. … The only question, really, was would the white South Africans have the good sense to give up gracefully in order to minimize bloodshed.”
Mandela made honorary member
Cracks began appearing in the apartheid system in the late ’80s. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, was released February 1989. One of the first things he did was thank the ILWU, and he became an honorary member of Local 10 in June 1990. He was elected South African president in 1994. Apartheid was abolished.
Reprinted with permission from The ILWU Dispatcher.