In this review of Peter Cole’s comparative study of port workers in Durban and San Francisco Bay, Dockworker Power, Peter Limb assesses the combination of labour, comparative and global history framed by the political economy of containerization which makes this book timely and worthy of deep reflection. The book’s author insists on the relevance of these dockworker struggles for the present and future, how workers can change their conditions, and the world, which is why the book is useful not just to scholars but also to workers, trade unionists and social activists more broadly.
By Peter Limb
Global and many national-economies today remain strategically integrated through shipping, which continues to carry 90 percent of global trade in goods. This important and timely book comparing the most advanced capitalist states of the North and of Africa will be of interest not just to scholars of the past or present, but also to activists in labour, anti-racist and other solidarity movements. At first glance, with sharply declining employment on docks and the related runaway financial success of containerisation, we might simply imagine the workers who run the ports as being increasingly in a precarious position. In many ways, they are, but they tend to retain some strategic ‘oomph’ due both to this substantial world trade and also to increasingly interconnected just-in-time production and distribution networks.
Peter Cole, who had written previously on the American labour movement (see his Wobblies on the Waterfront), has more recently given his close attention to African dockworkers. In this book he carefully and insight-fully compares and contrasts the history and continuing importance of dockworkers on the west coast of the United States and in Durban, South Africa. It is good comparative history, which is never easy. More often than not, a comparison of different countries is stronger on one than the other. This is somewhat the case here too, evident in the deeper archival and oral resources drawn on by the author in his excellent case study of Local (Branch) 10 in San Francisco/Oakland of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU; ‘international’ referring to the U.S. and Canada). But useful interviews and other sources on Durban dockworkers are also presented, and the treatment is well structured by historical period and theme to give equal balance. An interesting difference was that as Durban dockers fought to end the togt or casual day labour ruthlessly exploited by management, so San Francisco longshoremen held tightly to their decasualised work routines that gave them some flexibility and leisure opportunities.
Dockworkers in Durban and San Francisco Bay, from the 1940s to the 1970s
Cole first sketches the historical context in the ports, the harsh, dangerous work and the irregular, often casualised workplace regime, underlining how skilled dockers became (despite being labelled ‘unskilled’), for example in fitting complex cargo into ships’ holds. In Durban, wharves, ships, and grim hostels served not just as places of strict employer or state control, but also as places of incubation for alternative resistance strategies. In both ports, workers opposed the much-abused ‘shape up’ system of employers or their agents picking workers for jobs. In Durban, where the stevedore labourer workforce was black, they lived in terrible housing and working conditions but forged resistance to low wages through collective work and solidarity that encouraged unity and nurtured deep working class bonds. Cole then details how workers and their organisations (in unions or ‘informally’—in Durban, black unions were effectively illegal) fought class and race oppression in the 1940s and 1950s, then extends this to the 60s and 70s, before embarking on an analysis of decasualization and containerization and concluding with a chapter on more recent protests for social justice.
Along the way, we meet a good number of the activists themselves. These include, for example, Curnick Ndlovu, an underground activist who had been a dock and rail worker, African American docker Jimmie Ward, friend of the Black Panthers, and Herb Mills, who combined a lifetime’s work on the docks with writing a doctorate about it and continued to remain active. These and many other biographical snapshots add agency and African and worker voices to the narrative.
The Durban story is particularly rich for the 50s, 60s and 70s, bringing out the dynamic interaction between class and race, between social movements and workers. Integral to this is ‘political unionism’, with Cole adducing strong evidence for the ‘central role in local and national efforts against apartheid’ of dock strikes and political stay-aways (deeply entwined for black people under colonialism/apartheid), this is a strength in his analysis as labour historians have tended to downplay the political activist-labour equation. Here he acknowledges the diverse political influences, from the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies as they were known), communists, radical Pan-Africanists and sympathetic intellectuals. Harsh work, low wages, few guaranteed rights to change conditions. Little wonder dockers and militant unions in both lands vigorously applied the old Wobblies slogan ‘An Injury to One is an Injury to All’, vividly seen in a plethora of workplace and solidarity actions in both ports over the decades.
As the apartheid juggernaut rolled on, crushing labour and democratic rights, Durban dockers hit back. They had struck in 1949 under their enigmatic rank-and-file spokesperson Zulu Phungula, banished for his troubles. In 1954, a strike lasted a week and won a small wage increase. In the face of widespread police brutality—Govan Mbeki spoke of ‘civil war’ on the Port Elizabeth wharves; it was much the same in Durban—they took action again in 1956, 1958 and 1959, prompting dismissal of the entire workforce. When the Congress movement (African National Congress (ANC) and allies) called a national stay-at-home in 1958, dockers comprised three quarters of Durban participants. Throughout history, dockers had developed an arsenal of survival tactics. In this case, they refused overtime, used absenteeism and deployed well-timed stoppages showing ‘they understood their own power’.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is the reassessment of the significance of docker strikes in Durban in the late 1960s and early 70s. Some scholars, notably David Hemson, had earlier drawn attention to such matters, but Cole amplifies and further develops the argument. Just how significant, in Durban and beyond, were these strikes? Is too much made of single strikes over a longer period? Cole would argue they had a kick-on effect.
In April 1969, some 2,000 Durban dockworkers took illegal strike action. Moving surreptitiously, exploiting state-imposed labour relations structures, and using hostel walls and word of mouth to mobilise, they weathered machine-gun pointing police and mass expulsions to win a doubling of wages nationwide (‘African Dockmen Win Pay Increase’ the Rand Daily Mail headline read on 23 April 1969). In September 1971 they threatened a repeat, again winning raises, and in October 1972 struck again. All of these actions, in the face of rising inflation and poverty wages, were without formal or legal union structures. But the strikers were bolstered by their class/race solidarity, memory of past struggles, and support of sympathetic white activists in the Student Wages Commission, of which Cole presents a cogent view; its role should not be exaggerated, but neither should it be discounted.
On the ANC/South African Communist Party (SACP)/ Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the armed wing of the ANC) underground in Durban, Cole acknowledges there could well have been some work behind the scenes, such as, for example by Stephen Dlamini and Bhekisisa Nxasana. This appears to have borne fruit, in the re-establishment of South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)-like structures that morphed into the Wages Commission Benefit Fund. Cole’s synthesis draws attention to the activist side of events and unlike earlier theoretical jousting is even-handed on the ‘Workerist/Congress’ debate. He shines a light into the shadowy origins of the 1969-72 dock actions. An interview with Omar Badsha about 1972 docker subterranean organisation that intersected with the underground reveals some details of how they struck, employing rhythmical calls across the yards, slogans, and pasting up anonymous leaflets. They wisely refused to pick a delegation, insisting on speaking as a group, shouting demands—an effective defensive measure against victimisation/dismissals. Cole puts this down to collective memory, ‘perhaps whispered among the Buffalo [dockers] in their hostels’. His close attention to striker tactics, some of them surely evergreen and worthy of consideration by today’s activists, is a further strength across the book.
Relating all this to the causes of the great 1973 strike wave across South Africa but mainly in Durban, Cole notes the national poverty, inflation and repression, but asks, Why in Durban? He zeros in on the dockers’ October and December 1972 actions that stimulated the 1973 wave, which began just after in January 1973 at the Coronation plant, commonly seen as heralding the 1973 strikes. The dockers, he argues, through community and work contacts were in touch with other migrant workers, who in turn were inspired and emboldened by the successful dock strike tactics thrice in four years. It is a solid argument backed by convincing evidence. Some of this ground has been covered in theses by Nelson Tozivaripi Sambureni (see 1994, 1997), and Robinduth Toli (1991), but Cole deftly brings the literature together, adds his own innovative perceptions, and compares it to the San Francisco experience.
Similarly, Cole charts the close ties of practical solidarity between Local 10 and the Oakland-based Black Panthers, with farm workers, anti-racism movements, Japanese Americans during World War II. indigenous peoples occupying Alcatraz, and African American hotel workers, their protests against the assassination of Martin Luther King (an honorary union member), white supremacist terrorist murders and anti-Communist hysteria, which ‘helped thaw the domestic Cold War’. The union also fought against segregation in San Francisco and funded housing from its pension fund following forced removals. Within the union, Local 10 from the 1930s worked hard to integrate races at work, helping to reduce class-race divisions.
A major theme of the book is dockworker ‘power’; the organised power of the union in the U.S., of the less-formally grouped workers in Durban. In the face of the technological revolution of containers, the ILWU under long-term, Australian-born leader Harry Bridges after 1956 negotiated controversial wage rise and retirement packages resisted by many rank-and-filers. Capitalists created a fund to buy out current workers with job security, but not future workers. Bridges underestimated the rate and scale of automation, how employers would exploit the process to undermine the hard-fought gains of the union-controlled hiring hall, protection against heavy loads, and flexible hours. Worker participation in selecting people for tasks helped strengthen the democratic tradition in unions and gave some power over hiring and the work process, later used in anti-apartheid solidarity actions. But with automation, jobs haemorrhaged, accidents spiralled, profits skyrocketed. By 1970, 85 percent of tonnage was in containers. New machine operators of cranes became more distant from workmates; solidarity decreased, the workforce became more ‘company oriented’.
Things came to a head when 96 percent of workers, voting against a contract proposed by Bridges and employers, launched a major strike in 1971/2, which was lost. The element of class compromise suggests real limits to workers ‘power’; rearranged work processes not only maintained but also strengthened the stranglehold of capital. With huge profits, small wage concessions at the expense of important processes made strategic sense to capitalists.
Such outmanoeuvring was also the case in Durban, where due to reliance on cheap black labour, introduction of containers took place only from 1977, accompanied by a shift from the Point – where most dock work had been concentrated – to South Durban and to casualisation, which Cole rather grandly sees as marking ‘a major turning point in the entire history of Durban’; ‘ushering apartheid onto the waterfront’. Yet a segregated workforce had long been in place in all labouring jobs, so whether casualisation so markedly changed the history of others, is questionable. Yet, combined with containerisation, it did involve increased efficiency and employer power, whilst shipping remained Durban’s main industry.
Dockworkers and Solidarity from the 1980s
Durban dockers, still largely un-unionised, suffered more from containerisation. Massive layoffs saw the stevedoring workforce shrink from 3,500 in 1965 to only 1,200 by 1985.
Serious unionisation efforts began after containers arrived, but took two decades. There is little discussion around the unionising process, or internal divisions and contradictions although they are well expounded for Local 10. With scantier sources, Cole says less about the ‘fragmented and partial unionisation’ efforts in Durban in the 1980s by the General Workers Union (GWU) and Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). Neither does he elaborate on divisions caused by the Inkatha ‘union’ UWUSA, its collusion with bosses and violent intimidation of TGWU led by its indomitable female organiser Ntokozo Mbhele. As in San Francisco Bay, redundancies and divisions lessened dockers’ militancy and political action in the 80s and 90s, and beyond, as labour brokers descended on the docks. However, those interested in more detail of these events can turn to the work of David Hemson.
Cole examines different angles, right down the hierarchy from bosses to union leaders and rank-and-file, as well as technology and ideology. He captures well how employers were able to reduce docker power by changing contracts, but also how worker resistance continued. One difficulty is in comparing the strong union organisation of Local 10 with un-unionised Durban workers. Less attention is given to unions which did emerge in Durban, notably at the national level in the wider transport sector, the South Africa Railway and Harbour Workers Union, GWU, TGWU and finally SATAWU (not formed until 1997). This is understandable given the proscription of black unions and the fact that SARHWU was strongest among railway workers. In the 1940s and 50s shunting yards and docks were in a common area, helping activists like Billy Nair organise both sectors but unions among dockers, where they existed, remained largely unrecognised and secret (hence obscuring the historical record). There were SARHWU strikes in 1987 and 1989, with Durban workers involved and sabotage against trains blocking trade. Further painstaking research might map connections between rail and port workers. In all these struggles, Cole makes clear the lessons with the resilience, unity and creativity of workers undoubtedly valuable for today’s workers, whether unionised or not.
In San Francisco Bay of the 1980s, despite the impact of containerisation, Local 10 members continued to protest class and internationalist issues, well analysed by Cole drawing on solid oral history as well as archives. Dockers in the early 70s had used ‘guerrilla ambushes’, offloading then reloading South African goods. Their 11-day 1984 action was the longest, most significant workplace boycott against apartheid in the U.S. An African American clerk advised of ship arrivals and a union dispatcher allocated committed members to work them. Facing massive fines, the workers finally unloaded cargo. But their actions inspired and helped mobilise students and the wider community in the formation of a powerful local anti-apartheid movement that contributed to overriding Reagan’s veto on sanctions. In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke at Oakland and warmly commended Local 10’s 1984 action.
A final chapter examines ‘striking’ for social justice, interrogating the histories and intersection of Black and labour internationalism. Docker protests have continued, whether in 1984 in San Francisco against apartheid, or in 2008 in Durban against Mugabe’s rule, against the Marikana massacre, the Iraq war, Swazi autocracy and the bloody occupation of Palestine. Due to the recent nature of events, this chapter is briefer, sources less extensive, though drawing on some relevant interviews. A minor slip posits ‘Mugabe’s Movement for Democratic Change’. A brief diversion into ‘blue-collar cosmopolitanism’ appears to unnecessarily complicate matters theoretically, but the point about the international flavour of ports and its osmosis into dockers’ makeup is appropriately made. The main point though, as reflected in the book’s title, is power: dockworkers have ‘enough power’ and awareness of their strategic position to act in solidarity with their class and with others. Strikes and boycotts were tangible, demonstrating ‘a robust sense of working class internationalism’.
Summing up, Cole emphasises that dockers played leading roles in labour and black freedom struggles but employers used containerisation and hiring practices to regain workplace control and, despite resistance, workers could not reverse the change. Notwithstanding, their strategic position continues and unions retain their collectively built labour and wider internationalism and solidarity. He ends on a positive note: their history teaches us of labour successes, how people ‘can combat racism in their own workplaces and in other lands’.
Whether, when considered over time, these strikes and solidarity actions amount to a ‘leading role’ might be moot to some but they were certainly of considerable significance in their own regions and at the time. As I noted, Cole argues for the crucial impact of the 1969/1972 Durban strikes ‘paving the way’ for major strikes of 1973; ‘probably only the miners proved more influential’ nationally, he argues. All this hinges on the significance of the 1972/3 strikes, which undoubtedly sparked a revival not just of labour but also indirectly political resistance. Yet, once under steam, new union federations, Fosatu and Cosatu, and a new political front, the United Democratic Front, proceeded apace after the late 1970s. In contrast, since 1972, Durban dockers’ power has seemed somewhat more symbolic.
Some questions could do with further elaboration. Pan-African or race solidarity could be unpacked: would not dockworkers have expressed race solidarity with Mugabe if Pan-Africanism itself lacked contradictions, and if one takes class solidarity out of their equation, how much is left? Why should the ANC necessarily have felt beholden to the same Zimbabwean who jailed its cadres and supported instead the PAC? These are not easily resolved, for racial oppression and division formed such an important pillar of both apartheid and U.S. monopoly capital hegemony. Overall, Cole does bring these diverse social forces together and show their tensions, and the lessons of history for today’s politics.
Thoroughly surveying the historiography, Cole draws attention to the neglect of labour in the history of anti-apartheid movements in the U.S. and South Africa. Philip Foner fifty years ago pointed out a similar neglect by scholars of early protests by select unions against the war in Vietnam (see his American Labor and the Indochina War, 1971). Such examples, if admittedly limited, might have tempered somewhat Cole’s claims of the passivity of other U.S. unions when it comes to international solidarity. South African historians have also neglected labour history of the 1960s and further research might adjust somewhat the consensus on a decade of very limited strikes shattered by the bold Durban dockworkers. Nonetheless, Cole makes a strong case that their courageous, ongoing resistance was quite often inspirationally and practically in the vanguard of class and liberation struggles. Even if the dockers’ lack of formal organisation and declining numbers, and Durban’s remoteness from the industrial hub of today’s Gauteng province surely limited its impact nationwide, he has now written them into these histories.
Dockworkers, Containers, and Monopoly Capitalism Today
Are dockworkers still strategically significant? Cole makes a strong argument for their continuing potential powerfulness given increasingly networked just-in-time global trade. On the other hand, there has been a steep decrease in national shipping in South Africa and dockworker numbers, so what is the state of the union on the Durban docks? How many dock strikes have there been lately, how effective have they been? Cyril Ramaphosa has been moving against the right to strike in new legislation. Working class power is anathema to the Trump regime. So it would not pay to be overoptimistic.
As Beverley Silver points out, the percentage of shipping and dock disputes among wider transportation industry labour unrest globally has been declining for some time. If comprising 52 percent of global transportation labour unrest from 1870 to 1996, already by the 70s their relative weight of actions was slipping, falling by the 90s to a mere seven percent as aviation protests rose (see Silver’s Forces of Labor, 2003). As Silver goes onto to argue such measures do not necessarily equate to qualitative aspects of stoppages or their strategic potential but transport workers ‘continue to possess relatively strong workplace bargaining power’, evident when we see ‘their workplace as the entire distribution network in which they are enmeshed’. Nevertheless, containerisation and dock automation ‘dramatically downsized historically militant dock labour force in the second half of the twentieth century and in large part account for the dramatic decline in labour unrest’. Behind these trends, containers have been central to the actualisation of globalisation. Away from, but linked to the flood of containers arriving in ports, the unrelenting spread of monopoly supply chains backed by online marketing has exacerbated problems of labour organising. Cole is well aware of such trends but sees some hope in the wider global unity of workers, who also can make use of new technology, and use solidarity.
Transnational solidarity has been highlighted by unions and committed scholars for some years now. Three studies in 2008 alone underline the problems and prospects. Edna Bonacich and Jake Wilson, studying two other major Californian ports, similarly concludes ‘the purpose of organising all of the logistic workers … into an effective fighting force is not just to gain power and increase the well-being of those workers … unorganised and exploited …[but also] to create among U.S. workers worthy partners for a global struggle’. Editors of a collection assessing possibilities for revival of labour internationalism in South Africa, India, and China argue the capitalist system ‘can really be transformed only at the level of the planet’, but by starting ‘locally, nationally and regionally.’ Getting there is another problem. To Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin, ‘True international labour solidarity has both haunted and eluded the U.S. trade union movement’, which was side tracked by anti-communism. Yet some unions practised consistent international solidarity in ‘sectoral and social justice solidarity’, the latter seen in their support of anti-apartheid movements.
Peter Cole continues in such a vein, adding his own comparative insights, giving many examples of concrete class and black solidarity. Cases cited of solidarity with Palestinians, Zimbabweans and Swazis in the 2010s would have been morale boosting, and assisted the maintenance of a militant approach by dockworkers themselves. In all these cases, the building of transnational solidarity can be an important result, which Cole emphasises. Just how effective some actions can be is another question. Future research should address issues of power and organising across the wider transportation industry and across the globe.
The combination of labour, comparative and global history, framed by the political economy of containerization and technological change, makes this book most timely and worthy of deep reflection. The author transcends a purely academic approach by insisting on the relevance of these struggles for the present and future, how workers can change their conditions, and the world, and he convincingly demonstrates this theoretically and empirically. This is why the book is useful not just to scholars at their writing desks but also to unionists and social activists more broadly. Peter Cole’s book will inform and motivate, and may be read profitably with other recent insightful books on Durban dockers, by Ralph Callebert and Shaun Ruggunan, as well as the sections on transport workers in the copious ILO-funded tome, General Labour History of Africa. His blend of theory, past evidence, and current application will be instructive to all those committed to progressive and engaged writing.
Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area by Peter Cole (University of Illinois Press, 2018) is available here.
Peter Limb (emeritus, Michigan State University, email@example.com), has written widely on Southern African liberation and labour movements. He was deeply involved in anti-apartheid movements and recently co-authored an article in Labor History with Peter Cole on anti-apartheid solidarity of dockworkers in the U.S. and Australia.
Featured Photograph: The cover of Durban Strikes (Salt River: Labour History Group, 1987). Efforts to locate any copyright owners, who are unnamed, have not been successful.