Angela Davis, America’s Best-Known Black Radical, Joins the Country’s Most Radical Union

Poster image courtesy Lincoln Cushing / Docs Populi.

This Saturday, June 19th, celebrated among African Americans as Juneteenth, Angela Davis will be inducted into Local 10, the San Francisco Bay Area branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Happening at Local 10’s legendary hall near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, in what used to be the busiest port on America’s West Coast, Davis will join Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr. as the only others previously made honorary members.

Davis’ induction makes more visible the long and deep ties connecting African Americans to the labor movement and anti-capitalist politics, particularly in the ILWU. One could argue that the ILWU, especially Local 10, has set the standard for antiracist unions for eighty-five years and counting. She spoke in Oakland on Juneteenth last year as part of a huge rally organized by the ILWU which shut down every port on the US West Coast. The dockworkers did so to honor the holiday and especially the memory of George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis police three weeks earlier. Surrounded by a throng, masked up to prevent the spread of Covid, Davis declared last year: “If I had not chosen to become a university professor, my next choice probably would have been to become a dockworker or warehouse worker in order to be a member of the most radical union in the country, the ILWU.”

Trent Willis, Local 10’s current president and a long-time union activist, played a central role in the ILWU Juneteenth 2020 coastwide work stoppage so it should come as no surprise he also was deeply involved in inducting Angela Davis into his union. Willis, an African American and native Oaklander whose own brother died at the hands of law enforcement, praised her as “A Black Woman who exemplifies all of the ILWU’s 10 Guiding Principles,” a statement of working-class solidarity and unionism. Willis appreciates her as “a revolutionary icon who empowers and encourages freedom fighters, Black people, women, the oppressed and political prisoners to continue to fight on until all oppressed people are free.” The ILWU has been advocating for such causes since its founding in the 1930s.

That three of the most important African Americans in US history, indeed three of the most important Black people in 20th century world history, all are connected to the ILWU might be shocking. At least until one knows more about the ILWU.

The ILWU: this is what antiracism and solidarity look like

Born in the depths of the Great Depression, the ILWU has a storied history as a militant union that for fighting employers, racism, authoritarian governments, and even capitalism itself. In the summer of 1934, San Francisco longshoremen—no women yet worked on the waterfront—as in every other West Coast port struck to demand higher wages, union recognition, and much more. Known as the Big Strike, it essentially closed all West Coast ports for nearly two months. After a striker and strike sympathizer were killed by SF police, now called Bloody Thursday, more than 100,000 enraged workers shut down the entire city in the San Francisco General Strike. Dockworkers won the Big Strike and, a few years later, abandoned a more conservative longshore union to form the ILWU.

The ILWU was led by a fiery radical Australian immigrant named Harry Bridges who had emerged out of the rank-and-file during the Big Strike. He earned the undying loyalty of the tens of thousands of longshoremen up and down the coast, committed to rank-and-file democracy in the union and socialism worldwide. His politics were shaped by earlier membership in the Industrial Workers of the World and close ties to the Communist Party.

Bridges and other left-wing white dockworkers embraced Black workers in a way few white workers and unions then did. Bridges and many others, especially in what became Local 10, included an assortment of Communists, Wobblies, Trotskyists, and other anticapitalists. Not only did they identify capitalism, ultimately, as their enemy, they also understood that racism was firmly embedded into the American system so must be combatted, too.

In countless earlier strikes in US history, including San Francisco in 1919, employers had cynically used African American workers to replace strikers. Since earlier (dock) unions either denied Black workers admission or segregated them, few Black workers minded breaking strikes. Bridges and many other white workers learned this historical lesson—that the bosses love to use racism, xenophobia, and sexism to divide and weaken workers. They intended to act quite differently.

During the Big Strike, Bridges reached out to C.L. Dellums, an African American based in Oakland and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the Western states, and some Black church leaders. They agreed to support the strikers on the condition that Black workers would receive equal treatment in the new union.

Bridges went further and famously declared, “If things reached the point where there were only two men were left on the waterfront,” if he had any say about it “one would be a black man.”

The ILWU, particularly in San Francisco where Harry served as International President and shaped his hometown local, a critical mass of leftists quickly abolished segregated gangs and fiercely protected its Black members from racist assaults, verbal and physical. They also pushed other employers, private and public, to hire more Black workers. During World War II, when the first Black man was hired by the city’s streetcar system, he was beaten up on his first shift; subsequently, Local 10 members rode his streetcar to protect him.

The war also resulted in a massive labor shortage in industrial cities, resulting in a Great Migration that brought more than a thousand African American into Local 10 including Cleophas Williams. Fresh from rural Arkansas, Williams later recounted, “When I first came on the waterfront [in 1944], many Black workers felt that Local 10 was a utopia” due to its antiracist policies and practice.

Paul Robeson joined the ILWU

Also during the war, Paul Robeson became the union’s first honorary member. Robeson was as famous in his time as he is “forgotten” now. The son of a man who had freed himself from enslavement, Robeson was the most well-known Black artist in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. He was equally well known for his antiracist, antifascist politics as for singing in his legendary baritone in more than a dozen languages.

Robeson was a fierce advocate for unions, especially of the ILWU kind. He was close friends with Black sailors who later belonged to the ILWU. Robeson’s career was destroyed, alas, by a massive, coordinated assault led by HUAC and the FBI with active support from other parts of the federal government, city and state governments, police, employers, “patriotic” white military veterans in the American Legion, and more.

Harry Bridges also suffered tremendous persecution from the federal government. In fact, US Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote in 1945, “Seldom if ever in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise that freedom which belongs to him as a human being and is guaranteed by the Constitution.”

After WWII, the ILWU and Local 10 continued fighting for equal rights for all. During the 1950s and 1960s, the ILWU remained deeply involved in local and national struggles for civil rights. Local 10 actively recruited African American and other workers of color when membership opened in the late 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1960s, Local 10—literally 99% white when founded in the 1930s—had become majority Black. Cleophas Williams was elected Local 10’s first Black president in 1967.

MLK inducted into Local 10

That same year, Dr. King became the second honorary member of Local 10. Addressing a large gathering of dockworkers, at its hall at 400 Northpoint, King declared, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles…We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.” More than forty years later, Williams recalled: “He talked about the economics of discrimination,” insightfully noting, “What he said, is what Bridges had been saying all along,” that is attacking poverty and racism via interracial unions.

Since King—like many in the ILWU—considered the civil rights and labor movements “twins” (Williams’ term), King devoted himself to supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis the following year; his final public speech was at a rally to support the predominantly Black unionists. After Local 10 members learned of King’s stunning murder, they shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland, as they still do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU members attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, including Bridges and Williams. As Angela Davis remarked, much later about his death: “Racism was Martin Luther King’s assassin, and it was racism that had to be attacked.”

Angela Davis and the ILWU

Last year, on Juneteenth, Angela Davis was the most prominent speaker at the Oakland rally of the ILWU which should come as no surprise. Her politics neatly align with those of the militant, leftist ILWU, especially in Local 10.

Davis first became well-known—more correctly, notorious in many white and conservative spaces—for being an unapologetic supporter of Black Power and communism in the late 1960s. Historian Ibram X. Kendi named the final section of his magisterial Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas after her, the antiracist par excellence of the last sixty years. Kendi situated Davis into a longer tradition of “antiracist socialism” that stretched back to W.E.B. DuBois, Ben Fletcher, Claudia Jones, and Hubert Harrison.

In 1970, Davis was charged with murder for owning a gun later used in a dramatic courtroom gunfight involving the “Soledad Brothers” and which became a cause celebré among Black Power and left circles. Rather than risk being found guilty of murder and then being executed by the state of California, Davis went underground. Soon, she appeared on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. Davis’ visage, complete with afro, on a ‘Wanted by the FBI’ poster “showcased,” as Kendi wrote, “the woman who became the iconic female activist of the Black Power movement.” She was captured in New York City and extradited to California.

Hundreds of Free Angela rallies and groups soon emerged—in the US and across the world. Although the ILWU was in the midst of its longest-ever strike, Cleophas Williams, then serving his second term as Local 10 president, hosted a Free Angela rally at Local 10’s hall. Alongside the ILWU were a vast array of radical and Black organizations including the Black Panther Party, Communist Party, Black Students Union, SLATE, and many unions.

In 1984, Local 10’s Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, a rank-and-file group within the union, organized the largest and most impactful U.S. work stoppage to protest apartheid in South Africa. Led by Leo Robinson, an African American communist, this group included leftist, communist, and Pan-African members, Black and white, who long had fought against apartheid. In November, when a Dutch ship arrived at SF Pier 80, Local 10 members implemented their plan, refusing to unload the South African cargo. For ten days, hundreds of community supporters rallied in solidarity. One featured speaker was none other than Angela Davis, by then a professor in nearby Santa Cruz though she always kept one foot in the Bay Area.

Davis, the ILWU and Juneteenth 2020

2020 was a year like no other, in no small part because of the police murder of George Floyd on May 25th. With the largest antiracist protests since the late 1960s, Juneteenth became far more widely known. The ILWU, led by Local 10, voted to stop work along the entire US Pacific Coast, 29 ports to celebrate Juneteenth and protest Floyd’s killing. Notably, Local 10 had shut down the port on multiple other occasions including after Oscar Grant was killed by transit police and, on May Day in 2015, after a white police officer in South Carolina murdered a Black man who was the brother of a Charleston dockworker.

Davis’ speech, which went viral, celebrated the ILWU: “Thank you for shutting the ports on Juneteenth, the day we celebrate the end of slavery, the day we memorialize those who offered us hope for the future, the day when we renew our commitment to the struggle for freedom. You represent the potential and power of the labor movement.”

She continued: “Whenever the ILWU takes a stand, the world feels its reverberations” and listed off some of their most impressive actions: the ILWU openly stood against internment of Japanese Americans in 1940s, worked alongside MLK and civil rights movement in the 1960s, radicalized the struggle against South African apartheid in 1980s, supported Mumia Abu-Jamal by shutting down the entire West Coast on May Day in 1999, stopped work at the Port in solidarity with the anti-capitalist Occupy movement in 2011, and condemned the racist state of Israel and supported those who call for justice in Palestine, and more.

Davis wanted to belong to the ILWU because the union shared her values and had an even longer history of fighting for them.

Women on the waterfront

That Davis is not only Black but also a woman is a sign of the changing times in the ILWU and unions. When founded in 1937, the ILWU name was gendered as the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.

Though writing about the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, sociologist Jake Alimahomed-Wilson’s words apply to San Francisco, “the industry, waterfront, and union local were thus shaped and influenced exclusively by and for men.  The male-dominated longshore industry, along with the union local, was thereby defined within this exclusionary masculinist context.”

While many women had belonged to the Warehouse Division for decades, only in the 1970s did the first few women enter the Longshore Division which always has been the union’s heart. In 1997, at its international convention, the union unanimously approved making their name gender neutral.

While the ILWU rightly eliminated sex-exclusive terminology, the truth is that the union—like many other traditionally male-dominated jobs and unions—remains heavily male. Even today, perhaps only 15% of longshore workers in the ILWU are women (and even lower in the more conservative International Longshoremen’s Association which represents dockworkers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts).

The ILWU continues to strive to increase the number of women on the waterfront and made some effort to ensure equal treatment in the union and on jobsites, but more must be done.

Angela’s dream comes true: inducted into ILWU Local 10 on Juneteenth 2021

Clarence Thomas, an African American, third generation Oakland dockworker, and author of recently published Mobilizing in OUR OWN NAME: Million Worker March recently declared: “Sister Angela Davis’s selection as an honorary member of ILWU Local 10 is a testament to her life’s work that embodies what our union stands for. She’s a radical African American female activist-scholar, writer and educator, long in the vanguard of the Black liberation movement and struggle for the emancipation of the working class at home and abroad. She is indeed an internationalist. Her politics and beliefs reflect those of the founders of the ILWU.”

This Saturday, on Juneteenth, Angela Davis—arguably the most widely known and (now) loved American radical of the past half century—will get what she publicly wished for one year ago. She will join ILWU Local 10. No doubt, Paul Robeson, Harry Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cleophas Williams would be proud!

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He wrote the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia, co-edited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, and edited Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly. He is the founder and codirector of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.