If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nonetheless lived, he’d most likely inform folks to affix unions.
King understood that racial equality was inextricably linked to economics. He requested, “What good does it do to have the ability to eat at a lunch counter when you can’t purchase a hamburger?”
These disadvantages have persevered. Immediately, for example, the wealth of the typical White household is greater than 20 instances that of a Black one.
King’s answer was unionism.
The union newspaper reported that, in his Sept. 21, 1967, deal with to Native 10, King appealed “for unity between the labor motion and the Negro freedom motion.” Photograph from The Dispatcher archives, ILWU.
Convergence of Wants
In 1961, King spoke earlier than the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest and strongest labor group, to clarify why he felt unions have been important to civil rights progress.
“Negroes are nearly totally a working folks,” he stated. “Our wants are equivalent with labor’s wants—first rate wages, honest working circumstances, livable housing, outdated age safety, well being and welfare measures, circumstances through which households can develop, have training for his or her youngsters and respect locally.”
My new ebook, Dockworker Energy: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Space, chronicles King’s relationship with a labor union that was, maybe, essentially the most racially progressive within the nation. That was Native 10 of the Worldwide Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, or ILWU.
ILWU Native 10 represented staff who loaded and unloaded cargo from ships all through San Francisco Bay’s waterfront. Its members’ dedication to racial equality could also be as stunning as it’s unknown.
In 1967, the yr earlier than his homicide, King visited ILWU Native 10 to see what interracial unionism regarded like. King met with these unionists at their corridor in a then-thriving, portside neighborhood—now a gentrified vacationer space greatest recognized for Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39.
Whereas King knew about this union, ILWU historical past isn’t broadly recognized off the waterfront.
Marching within the West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934. Photograph from San Francisco Public Library.
Civil Rights on the Waterfront
Dockworkers had suffered for many years from a hiring system in comparison with a “slave public sale.” As soon as employed, they routinely labored 24- to 36-hour shifts, skilled among the many highest charges of damage and loss of life of any job, and endured abusive bosses. And so they did so for extremely low wages.
Within the throes of the Nice Despair, these more and more militant and radicalized dockworkers walked off the job. After 83 days on strike, they received an enormous victory: wage will increase, a coastwide contract, and union-controlled hiring halls.
Quickly, these “wharf rats,” among the many area’s poorest and most exploited staff, turned “lords of the docks,” commanding the very best wages and greatest circumstances of any blue-collar employee within the area.
At its inception, Native 10’s membership was 99% White. However Harry Bridges, the union’s charismatic chief, joined with fellow union radicals to decide to racial equality in its ranks.
Initially from Australia, Bridges began engaged on the San Francisco waterfront within the early Twenties. It was in the course of the Massive Strike that he emerged as a pacesetter.
Bridges coordinated in the course of the strike with C.L. Dellums, the main Black unionist within the Bay Space, and made positive the handful of Black dockworkers wouldn’t cross picket traces as substitute staff. Bridges promised they’d get a good deal within the new union. One of many union’s first strikes after the strike was integrating work gangs that beforehand had been segregated.
Native 10 Overcame Pervasive Discrimination
Cleophas Williams, a Black man initially from Arkansas, was amongst those that acquired into Native 10 in 1944. He belonged to a wave of African People who, because of the huge labor scarcity brought on by World Battle II, fled the racism and discriminatory legal guidelines of the Jim Crow South for higher lives—and higher jobs—outdoors of it. Lots of of hundreds of Blacks moved to the Bay Space, and tens of hundreds discovered jobs within the booming shipbuilding business.
Black staff in shipbuilding skilled pervasive discrimination. Employers shunted them off into much less enticing jobs and paid them much less. Equally, the principle shipbuilders’ union proved hostile to Black staff, who, when allowed in, have been positioned in segregated locals.
A couple of thousand Black males, together with Williams, have been employed as longshoremen in the course of the conflict. Williams later recalled to historian Harvey Schwartz: “After I first got here on the waterfront, many Black staff felt that Native 10 was a utopia.”
Throughout the conflict, when White foremen and navy officers hurled racist epithets at Black longshoremen, this union defended them. Black members obtained equal pay and have been dispatched the identical as all others.
A gang of welders on the Marinship yard, Sausalito, California, round 1943. Photograph from Nationwide Park Service.
For Williams, this union was a revelation. Actually the primary White folks he ever met who opposed White supremacy belonged to Native 10. These longshoremen weren’t merely anti-racists, they have been communists and socialists.
Leftist unions just like the ILWU embraced Black staff as a result of, reflecting their ideology, they contended staff have been stronger when united. Additionally they knew that, numerous instances, employers had damaged strikes and destroyed unions by enjoying staff of various ethnicities, genders, nationalities, and races in opposition to one another. For example, when 350,000 staff went out in the course of the mammoth Metal Strike of 1919, employers introduced in tens of hundreds of African People to work as replacements.
Some Black dockworkers additionally have been socialists. Paul Robeson, the globally well-known singer, actor, and left-wing activist, had a number of pals, fellow socialists, in Native 10. Robeson was made an honorary ILWU member throughout WWII.
King speaks at Native 10 in San Francisco, September 1967. Photograph from ILWU Archives (author-provided).
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Union Member
In 1967, King walked in Robeson’s footsteps when he was inducted into Native 10 as an honorary member, the identical yr Williams turned the primary Black individual elected president of Native 10. By that yr, roughly half its members have been African American.
King addressed these dockworkers, declaring, “I don’t really feel like a stranger right here within the midst of the ILWU. We now have been strengthened and energized by the assist you may have given to our struggles. … We’ve discovered from labor the which means of energy.”
A few years later, Williams mentioned King’s speech with me: “He talked concerning the economics of discrimination. … What he stated is what Bridges had been saying all alongside,” about staff benefiting by attacking racism and forming interracial unions.
Eight months after his induction, in Memphis to prepare a union, King was assassinated.
The day after his loss of life, longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland, as they nonetheless do when one among their very own dies on the job. 9 ILWU members attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, together with Bridges and Williams, honoring the person who referred to as unions “the primary anti-poverty program.”
This text was initially revealed by The Dialog. It has been revealed right here with permission.