Longshore Labor’s Real SF Worker-Intellectual

In the 1950s and 60s, the best-known member of the left-led International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) was, oddly enough, a conservative writer named Eric Hoffer, whose fans included Ronald Reagan. Hailed in the mainstream media as the work of a “labor philosopher,” Hoffer’s first book, The True Believer, became a national best-seller and widely-assigned reading in colleges and high schools. In his writing, Hoffer argued that mass movements of the left and right were essentially interchangeable, and equally prone to dogmatism and extremism.

A Bay Area resident, Hoffer worked on the docks until 1967, by which time UC Berkeley had become an epicenter of student protest. He was a fierce critic of campus radicalism, warning that “for the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”  This was music to the ears of Berkeley administrators who made Hoffer an adjunct professor. In 1982, President Reagan invited his fellow cold-warrior to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A new book about a Bay Area ILWU leader, whose own life as a working-class intellectual, over-lapped with Hoffer’s, presents a different view of Sixties activism and its impact on labor and society. Herb Mills: A Tribute (Euclid Avenue Press, 2021) is an edited collection about the unusual career of a dock worker and elected officer of ILWU Local 10, who helped shape the Berkeley student movement sixty years ago and, later, received his PhD in sociology from UC-Irvine. As recounted in this edited collection of interviews with (and articles by and about) Mills, his original migration from the world of blue-collar work to higher education began in Michigan. Born in 1930, he graduated from Dearborn High School and then went to work, at age 18, in Ford Motor’s huge River Rouge assembly plant. As Mills recounted later, “this plant was my education. River Rouge and its union changed my life.” United Auto Workers Local 600 was, at the time, under left-wing leadership, and encouraged its 40,000 members to take classes in US politics, labor economics and history at a local junior college. A professor there encouraged Mills to leave the factory and get a four-year degree at the University of Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

A Foe of HUAC

After a stint in the Army, Mills moved to California, where he started graduate studies at Berkeley. He also joined SLATE, a campus political party which became nationally known for its multi-issue campaigning against racial discrimination in housing, the death penalty in California, military training on campus, and the investigative activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As the ILWU Dispatcher noted when Mills died three years ago, at age 80, he “spoke to student and community groups across the country, explaining how citizens of San Francisco took action to successfully shut down HUAC, marking a shift from the anti-Communist hysteria that was used against unions, like the ILWU, during the Cold War.” According to fellow SLATE member Mike Miller, Mills was a “master strategist” for SLATE and “central to steering it thought the thicket of left politics and maintaining its ability to win broad support.”

In 1963, Mills put his doctoral work on hold and became, like Eric Hoffer, a working member of ILWU Local 10. As a longshoreman, Mills was equally active on bread and butter issues, internal struggles to maintain the democratic character of the union, and ILWU refusals to unload military cargo destined for military dictatorships in Chile and El Salvador. He started out as a union steward, then stewards’ council chair, Local 10 business agent, and finally secretary-treasurer of the local, which remains in the forefront of Bay Area labor solidarity today. (On Juneteenth last year, the local was part of a West Coast port shutdown protesting the death of George Floyd and hosted a huge rally in Oakland featuring Professor Angela Davis, the former political prisoner who was just made an honorary ILWU member.)

For admirers of the ILWU and its legendary founder Harry Bridges, a San Francisco general strike leader in 1934, the most interesting part of Mills career will be his conflict with Bridges over implementation of the first Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) Agreement negotiated with longshore employers in 1960. As part of a “grand bargain” designed to raise wages and benefits while allowing the industry to reduce its labor-force through “containerization,” the M&M deal paved the way for a weakening of traditional union hiring hall protections. In 1971, management’s insistence on hiring some “steady workers” of their own choosing, rather than having all dispatched from an ILWU hall, triggered a 134-day walk-out. Strike action was opposed by Bridges but backed by a big membership majority.

Rebellion Against Bridges

As the Dispatcher reported fifty years later, this Mills-assisted rebellion against Bridges “tapped into a feeling among younger workers that Bridges had lost touch and was becoming too close to the industry.” In Mills’ view, “the social roots and bonds of the [longshore] community…were destined to be ripped asunder once the individual employer secured the contractual right to remove men from the functioning of the hiring hall.” Bridges, in turn, believed that strike advocates, like Mills, were “reckless and unwilling to face new realities.” In the end, the employers prevailed on the issue, a set-back which led Mills to call for Bridges’ retirement. The union founder finally stepped down in 1977, after trying to lead ILWU members back into the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters union, or the more conservative east-coast International Longshoremen’s Association, which the ILWU broke away from in 1937 A staunch defender of ILWU independence and autonomy, Mills campaigned successfully against any such affiliation or merger.

During Mills own later career in Local 10, he tackled critical issues like the need for greater dock worker protection against workplace asbestos exposure. As noted above, he also helped mobilize ILWU members against shipments of military cargo to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the armed forces of El Salvador, during their 1980s civil war massacres. Mills led Bay Area protests over the death of two ILWU local officials, whose opposition to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos led to their own assassination. He was also credited with helping to save the life of South Korean dissident Kim Dae Jung, who faced execution in 1980 for his political activities. Seventeen years later, after imprisonment and exile, Kim was inaugurated president of South Korea, with Mills and ILWU President Brian McWilliams as honored guests at the ceremony.

A Permanent Tribute

Contributors to Herb Mills: A Tribute include a number of retired ILWU members or headquarters, staffers, along with longshore historians, sociologists, and labor archivists. Among them are former ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Ed Ferris; Harvey Schwartz, curator of the ILWU’s Oral History collection at its SF headquarters on Franklin Street; Professor Peter Cole, author of Dockworker Power; former ILWU organizing director Peter Olney; Steve Stallone, the union’s ex-communications director; Sadie Williams, a member of the ILWU Local 10 pensioners Club; Ashley Lindsey, a researcher for the Waterfront Workers History Project; and Paula Johnson, who collaborated with Mills on a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the transformation of waterfront work.

The moving force behind this collection is Mills’ best friend for 60 years, longtime community organizer and labor educator Mike Miller, whose ORGANIZE Training Center, at 442 Vicksburg Street, San Francisco, 94114 is filling orders for the book. (Send a check for $30 to the OTC at that address or through PayPal, using the email address: “theorganizermailing2@yahoo.com) In Miller’s own salute to Mills, he describes him as “a small ‘d’ democrat” who “could engage in the most esoteric political theory debates” Yet, from the Berkeley campus to local labor fights and cross-border solidarity campaigns, Mills’ core belief remained the same: “all people should have the right and power to effectively participate in the decisions that affect their lives.”

That Sixties-inspired creed and Mills personal example are both good guides for younger radicals making a similar post-graduate transition today– from campus or community activism to workplace organizing in unionized or non-union workplaces.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com