Longshore Union to Shut Down all West Coast Ports on Juneteenth

by Cindy Domingo

In a show of worker power, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will shut down all twenty-nine West Coast ports for eight hours on Friday, June 19 in celebration of Juneteenth, standing in solidarity against police violence and calling for an end to white supremacy.  Juneteenth originated in Texas, where slaves were not freed until 1865, more than two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of chattel slavery in the United States. The ILWU action follows on the heels of a June 9 action in which the East and West Coast longshore workers stopped working and took an eight-minute, forty-six second moment of silence to coincide with the funeral of George Floyd in Houston. The work stoppage was also to honor Breonna Taylor and all victims of police repression.

The Juneteenth action in Seattle will begin with a 9 a.m. rally and march from the ILWU Local 19 Hall at 3440 E Marginal Way S.  Under the slogan of “Let’s turn this day of celebration of the emancipation of the slaves into a day of action against modern-day slavery!” The participants will march to the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) Day Reporting Center at 1550 4th Avenue South.

The DOC destination was chosen after inmates at work release facilities were retaliated against after demanding personal protection equipment and other safety measures to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.  According to organizers, the march will highlight the fact that the rights of workers do not end merely because a worker is convicted of a crime and incarcerated. The ILWU’s flyer for the event, notes that Washington state is subject to international law, including of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and cites Articles 3 through 6, which afford everyone the right to life, liberty and security of person; freedom from slavery or servitude; freedom from torture or to cruel, inhumane treatment and punishment; and recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

The West Coast work stoppage and the June 9 action were, in part, spearheaded by Local 10 ILWU, based in San Francisco, the only predominantly African American local on the West Coast.  Clarence Thomas, former Secretary-Treasurer  of Local 10, says in an interview printed in Jacobin Magazine,  that Local 10 has a long history in protesting the racist policing of African Americans and that, “the way these murders can be stopped is when there are economic consequences. The working class has leverage — and we need to use it.”  Local 10 used that leverage in 2010 when they shut down ports to demand justice for Oscar Grant, a young black man shot by a BART police officer in Oakland on New Year’s Eve.  Local 10 continues to shut down the ports annually on May Day in opposition to repression against African Americans.

Keith Shanklan, the first Black President of ILWU Local 34 in Oakland, came together with Locals 10, 75 and 91 to organize the Juneteenth action. In a letter Shanklan wrote to International ILWU President Willie Adams, calling for the action during the Floyd funeral, Shanklan stated, “Labor has been and continues to be the most powerful tool to bring about social change in the United States of America, as well as the entire world. From the Haymarket Affair in 1886 to the Million Worker March in 2004, labor has continued to be the organizing foundation for the community to unite for social change. We must continue the mission for the Disenfranchised, the Victims of Systemic Racism and Police Terror by once again collectively raising our voices.  All Lives Will Matter When Black Lives Matter because an Injury to One is an Injury to All!”

The ILWU has long been known for its radical history and taking up controversial positions in the labor movement, aligning the union with communities of color and international workers’ struggles — including opposition to dictatorships abroad and U.S. support of those undemocratic governments. In 1981, the ILWU passed a resolution at the recommendation of Seattle labor officials in the Alaska Cannery Workers Union, Local 37 ILWU. Those leaders, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, sent a labor investigation team to look into the repression of the Philippine labor movement under the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos dictatorship. This resolution ultimately triggered the assassinations of Domingo and Viernes in their union offices in Seattle’s Pioneer Square by hired gunmen paid by the Marcoses.

The ILWU has also refused to unload containers from an Israeli-owned ship in protest of the country’s policies toward Palestinians. Similar actions occurred in opposition to the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the Jose Duerte dictatorship in El Salvador during the 1980s.  In a show of solidarity with the people of South Africa fighting to tear down the racist apartheid regime, longshore workers refused to unload cargo from South Africa during that period. The ILWU was also the first U.S. union to oppose the Vietnam War in 1964 and took similar positions toward the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In a debate in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Labor Council on June 17, ILWU Local 52 member Gabriel Prawl spoke on behalf of labor constituents of color including APRI, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement to oust the Seattle Police Officers Guild from the Labor Council.  Prawl stated that the Police Guild does not serve the interests of the working class. Just as in the bloody waterfront strike of 1934, Prawl recalled, when longshore workers fought for a West Coast contract, police violence resulted in the murder of labor activists.  Prawl said that police violence must end: “If not now, when?”

Cindy Domingo serves on the leadership team of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) Seattle Chapter/AFL-CIO and is Board Chair of A Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO) located in Columbia City.

Featured image: The Port of Seattle by Mobilus in Mobili