Earl George, Civil Rights crusader from ILWU Local 9

Throughout its history, the ILWU has been committed to rank and file democracy, social justice, and solidarity with other workers and unions on behalf of economic and social gains for working people. The ILWU’s power rests on the hard work of rank and file members who both create and carry out these policies. Earl George (1894-1985) of Seattle Local #9 was one such person.

He dedicated his life to tireless work on behalf of the ILWU and progressive causes, most passionately in the struggle to end racial discrimination. In a sense, his life is a snapshot of the ILWU and the wider progressive movement, in which rank and filers inspire policy in the union, and the union inspires social change that extends beyond its membership.

George was born in Denver in 1894. He once said that “growing up Black in this country gives you a pretty good political education.” Early on, the struggles of Denver’s Black community and the violent Colorado miners’strikes shaped his thinking. George studied math and chemistry at the University of Denver before being drafted into the segregated Army in 1917 and sent to Fort Lewis in the Puget Sound. George arrived in Seattle in time to participate in the 1919 general strike. 65,000 workers in Seattle walked out in solidarity with 35,000 shipyard workers who were immersed in a struggle for wage increases. The action effectively shut down the entire city.

In an oral history interview, George recalled of the strike that “nothing moved but the tides.” He reminisced that it was his introduction into the class struggle. Like other African Americans, George was excluded from many jobs as well as many unions. In the 1920s and 1930s, he worked in a number of low paid, non-unionized jobs in the service sector, peppered with periods of unemployment. He found work as a steward aboard coastwise vessels, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant labor union founded in 1905 which rallied under the banner, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

When the Great Depression hit, George marched in Seattle’s streets with the Unemployed Citizens League and the Workers’ Alliance, an organization which fought to get collective bargaining rights for people working on federal projects. He also helped build the Washington Commonwealth Federation and the Pension Union, whose influence in Washington State politics helped pass the state’s first pension bill in 1939. George joined ILWU Local 9 as a warehouseman in 1938. While working as a warehouseman, he continued to dedicate himself to ending discrimination and bettering the lives or workers.

In 1948, he worked on a campaign that succeeded in forcing Seattle-area grocery stores to hire African Americans. A dedicated ILWU member, he participated in the 1946 strike, and in 1950 became the first Black president of Local 9. While serving in local office, George and then ILWU Regional Director Bill Chester (later International Vice President) were among a number of African American unionists, who helped found the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC). A powerful but short-lived labor organization, the NNLC focused its goals on ending racial discrimination in industry and racism in unions. They campaigned to get unions to organize Black workers and were successful in getting a number of unions to call for non-discrimination clauses in their labor contracts. Earl George was a survivor of racism and also a strong combatant against it. Like many labor activists of his time, he also faced bitter red baiting.

Along with ILWU President Harry Bridges and other members of the union, George was scapegoated for his political views. In the early 1950’s, former Communist Party member Barbara Hartle testified at the Velde Committee hearings, part of the House Un- American Activities Committee, and named Earl and his wife Vivian along with over 200 other possible members of the Communist Party.

Earl himself was subpoenaed to appear before the committee to answer whether he was a Party member. He recalled that “the committee was so self-righteous. They were going to save the world from dangerous folks like me. What did I have to say to them? I took the Fifth Amendment and walked out.” Earl George was a friend to legendary performer and honorary ILWU member Paul Robeson. In 1952, the Seattle City Council barred Robeson from performing at the Civic Auditorium. George came to his aid, organizing protests in Robeson’s support.

He took similar action when the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport, preventing him from touring outside the US because of his political beliefs. Lonnie Nelson, a longtime Seattle- area activist and member of ILWU Auxiliary #3 who was close to George, stated that he “was one of the people in the ILWU who represented a wide understanding of life and industry. He was a working class intellectual.”

George remained with Local 9 until 1961, when he retired from work. However, retirement did not mean an end to his commitment to the ILWU and labor and civil rights activism. As soon as he left the active workforce, George became a committed and active member of the Seattle Pensioners, where he variously served as Trustee, Secretary, and Secretary-Treasurer.

He was integral in organizing freedom schools during the school boycott to protest segregation in 1966. He also became a well-known photographer, chronicling union picket lines, demonstrations, and rallies for social justice through his camera’s lens. The ILWU International appointed him as a correspondent/photographer for the Dispatcher, and a number of his images appeared in the paper in the 1970s and 1980s. In an interview taken shortly before his death, George stated that “for ninety years I’ve been outraged by injustice wherever it rears its ugly head. All the movements I’ve been part of had one important goal: a little more bread, slightly thicker broth, and a bigger piece of the pie for everyone.”

– Robin Walker

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