MAY DAY in the US this year was marked by dockworkers along the West Coast taking industrial action against the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 25,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing 29 ports from Seattle to San Diego, took part in the 8-hour day stoppage during their busy day shift.
Mark Goudkamp of Solidarity spoke to Jack Heyman (JH) and Clarence Thomas (CT), two ILWU Executive Board members at Oakland Docks in San Fransisco (Local 10), who initiated the resolution for the May 1 stoppage.
Can you tell me a little about the history of political/social movement unionism in the ILWU?
JH: The ILWU formed out of the militant class struggle of the 1930s. A militant three-month maritime strike in 1934 organised workers in all ports on the West Coast. Six workers were killed during this strike. A general strike was called in San Fransisco and from that point on the ILWU played a militant role within the trade union movement.
During WWII, we took action against ships from Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. In 1978, we refused to load bombs headed for General Pinochet in Chile.
In 1984, we organised an 11-day boycott of a South African ship. Nelson Mandela later said that our action provided the “spark that reignited the US anti-apartheid movement”.
We supported the Australian wharfies in 1998 with action against a Patricks ship in the Los Angeles port. In 1999 we organised a shutdown in solidarity with the anti-WTO protesters in Seattle.
What led you moving the motion for the May 1 stopwork action against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?
CT: In 2003, the ILWU Convention passed a resolution opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq-but it didn’t include calls for action. In March 2005, on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, we took stopwork action even though the rest of the union didn’t. Local 10 sent me to Iraq in late 2003 with a delegation to observe workers’ rights under the occupation.
JH: San Francisco longshoremen have repeatedly introduced resolutions against the war. For the past five years, we’ve been defeated in the union-wide vote.
However, this time longshoremen who are Vietnam War Vets got up and said: “Enough is enough. We campaigned for the Democrats, banged on doors for them and they won control of Congress, but they continue to support funding of the war. We can’t rely on politicians. We have to take action ourselves if we want to stop this war.” These speeches really shifted the momentum.
What kind of support have you received from other unions?
CT: We can’t expect all workers to take the kind of industrial action that we can, but we’re encouraging them to do whatever they can. Some, including postal workers, are stopping to observe two minutes of silence out of respect for those who’ve lost their lives as a result of this war.
The ILWU is one of the few unions that has bottom up organising and allows rank-and-file decision making. This action is being driven by the rank-and-file, and we are part of a May day Coalition with other unions, social justice organisations and others.
What do you think a Democratic victory in November will mean for the war in Iraq?
CT: We all heard [Democratic presidential candidate] Obama say that he’d “end the war in Iraq as we know it”. But this means some troops will remain. We also hear him say that some troops need to stay there to protect our embassies and to take on Al Qaeda. But if there are still 30,000 troops there, that’s 30,000 too many. We’ll welcome reductions, but we’ll keep demanding that they all be brought home.