Some people’s lives are more than their personal stories—they are stories of history, of making history, of changing history by force of will. It was that kind of story that was retold at the retirement party of ILWU labor and social justice activist Jack Heyman last Friday evening at a union restaurant two blocks from San Francisco’s legendary longshore Local 10 hall.
For more than 25 years Heyman plied his considerable organizing and rhetorical skills to use the ILWU’s power in international commerce and their radical tradition to affect change. This he often did in spite of and in opposition to the “better judgment” of the union’s International leadership. So much so that when Heyman, upon making plans for his retirement, faced a dispute over his pension qualifying years, the International officers agreed to intervene on his behalf if he assured them he was really going to leave the waterfront by the first of this year.
(L to R) Longshoremen Jahn Overstreet and Buster Willis and Gina Dent and Angela Davis with Jack.
Heyman started his troublemaking when he took a semester off from Penn State in 1964 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Rights movement, getting arrested in the South trying to integrate public facilities. He started sailing freighters in 1966 out of Panama. He became a member of the National Maritime Union in 1969 and joined the Militant-Solidarity Caucus, a class struggle rank-and-file group that opposed the right-wing union bureaucracy. In 1980, while working on an oil barge in New York harbor, a fuel barge exploded and caught fire at a nearby terminal. As workers were running from the scene in panic, Heyman jumped on the barge and pulled a fellow maritime worker to safety. The Coast Guard gave him an award in recognition of his heroism.
Later that year he moved to the West Coast and joined the Inlandboatmen’s Union, the marine division of the ILWU, and continued working oil barges. Now he had a real stage to raise some real hell. In 1984, Heyman participated in organizing a union boycott action of a South African ship, the Nedlloyd Kimberly, in protest of that country’s apartheid policies. Nelson Mandela later attributed the action with kick-starting the international anti-apartheid campaign that eventually toppled the regime.
In 1996, Heyman worked briefly as the ILWU’s Bay Area ship inspector, boarding ships as they came into port and checking crews’ conditions. In the port of Stockton, he had the longshoremen stop work on a ship until the captain met the Filipino crew’s demands for repatriation and monetary remittances to their families.
That same year Heyman took on the cause of the Liverpool dockers, British workers sacked and replaced by non-union workers. The BBC reported on Heyman’s solidarity mission, noting the support from the West Coast ILWU broke the isolation of the sacked dockers. Heyman was instrumental in organizing a “labor/community picket” when a scab-loaded ship, the Neptune Jade, came into the Port of Oakland. The longshore workers could contractually honor the lines, forcing the employer to call for an arbitration, delaying work for days, missing the ship’s next port call and costing the ship owners millions of dollars. The action inspired dockworkers in Canada and Japan to hit the ship when it made its next stops in Vancouver and Yokohama. The employers tried to sue Heyman and a few of his cohorts for the economic damage, but the case became a cause celebre and the employers had to drop all charges when the ILWU threatened to shut down the entire West Coast if the court case proceeded.
In 1999, when death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was being threatened with execution, Heyman convinced the ILWU to shut down all West Coast ports and lead a 25,000-strong march in San Francisco for a day in protest. The action galvanized the “Free Mumia” movement and brought national media attention to the case, his appeal and the stark evidence of his innocence.
In 2000, Heyman saw a photo with a short caption in the New York Times about riot police viciously attacking a union picket line at the Port of Charleston with billy clubs, dogs, and armored vehicles. This conjured up images of the civil rights days of the 1950s, beating and arresting the longshore pickets. He and then Local 10 President Lawrence Thibeaux immediately caught a plane to South Carolina and brought the Local’s president, Ken Riley, out to the West Coast to address a meeting of ILWU longshore leaders. Together Heyman and Riley tweaked the ILWU’s sense of justice and began the West Coast “Free the Charleston 5” campaign for the longshore workers singled out, charged with felony conspiracy to riot and threatened with years in prison. The campaign went international, with ships getting hit around the world in solidarity. It ended with the charges being reduced to negligible misdemeanors, and the ambitious Republican state Attorney General, who was using his anti-union prosecution to bolster his run for governor, having his political career destroyed, just another hubris-filled Goliath who never saw it coming between the eyes.
In 2003, at the start of the Iraq war Heyman, then Business Agent for Local 10, helped organize a mass antiwar protest at the gates of the APL and SSA terminals in the Port of Oakland to protest the companies’ collusion with the government to transport war materiel. Oakland police, spurred on by government reports of “terrorist” involvement in the demonstration, attacked the pickets and the longshore workers with wooden dowels, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. They beat and arrested Heyman, although the charges were later dropped. The UN Human Rights Commission condemned the police response as the most violent attack on anti-Iraq war demonstrators in the world. Then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s Oakland ended up paying protesters over $2 million in damages.
In 2008, against the will of the ILWU International officers (again), the ILWU rank and file shut down every port on the West Coast on May Day to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the International officers schemed to prevent Heyman from being seated as a delegate to a longshore convention, his antiwar resolution prevailed anyway. In 2010, after Israeli commandos killed nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara bringing food, medicine and building supplies to Gaza, Heyman helped organize a mass picket against the Israeli ship the Zim Shenzen when it reached the Port of Oakland. Later that same year he convinced his Local to close all ports in the Bay Area in a call for justice for Oscar Grant, a young African American man shot in cold blood by a transit cop in Oakland.
At Heyman’s retirement party the more than 100 attendees included Angela Davis, former Local 10 Secretary-Treasurer Herb Mills, who led the boycott of ships bound for Pinochet’s Chile loaded with weapons, and ILWU’s official historian Professor Harvey Schwartz. Mumia sent a recorded message of congratulations to Heyman, Ken Riley came all the way from Charleston to present him with a plaque commemorating him as the first to come to the Charleston 5’s aid and the Ah Quon McElrath Fund for Social Justice sent him a lei from Hawaii. The assembly was treated to a 20-minute video of the ILWU’s historic actions over the last quarter of a century, recording Heyman’s hand in it all. After that, his many friends and comrades roasted him for a couple of hours.
There were references to all the pictures of Heyman speaking at every demo and picket line (“Jack never met a microphone he didn’t like”) and he was skewered for his well known, sometimes grating intransigence on the righteousness of his views. Former ILWU International President Brian McWilliams said he appointed Heyman as ship inspector because he figured “A captain would do just about anything to get Jack off his ship.”
Although, as they say on the waterfront, Heyman is hanging up the hook, he is not done. As fellow longshoreman Leo Robinson, a leader in the Nedlloyd Kimberly anti-apartheid action said that evening, “Jack is retiring from the job, not from the work.”
Copies of the 21 minute dvd “ILWU Struggles 1984-2010, The Class Struggle Continues” shown at Jack’s retirement party are available for $20 from Labor Video Project; P.O. Box 720027; San Francisco, CA 94172 or email email@example.com for info.
To view the San Francisco Labor Council resolution commending Jack for 40 years of class struggle work in the trade union movement, visit the website: http://www.labournet.net/world/1011/heyman1.html
STEVE STALLONE was the editor of the ILWU’s newspaper The Dispatcher from 1997-2007 and worked with Heyman on the Neptune Jade, Mumia and Charleston 5 campaigns. The union’s International Officers fired him for his politics in violation of his union contract. He won his arbitration against the officers and continues working as a labor journalist for Northern California’s largest public employee union, SEIU 1021, as President of the AFL-CIO affiliate the International Labor Communications Association and as Secretary of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG-CWA 39521.