Death of Nelson Mandela recalls decades of ILWU support for anti-apartheid struggle


Early apartheid protest: In 1962 Local 10 longshoreman refused to cross a community picket line of activists from the American Committee on Africa who were protesting a ship containing South African goods. Photo courtesy of ILWU Library and Archives

Early apartheid protest: In 1962 Local 10 longshoreman refused to cross a community picket line of activists from the American Committee on Africa who were protesting a ship containing South African goods. Photo courtesy of ILWU Library and Archives

Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize winner, former political prisoner and leader of the African National Congress who became a world-wide symbol in the struggle against apartheid passed away on December 5th at the age of 95. Local 10 President-elect and International Executive Board member Melvin Mackay attended Mandela’s funeral in South Africa on behalf of the ILWU.

“A figure like Nelson Mandela comes along once in a lifetime. He became a world-wide symbol for human rights and the struggle for social justice. He helped South Africa along the path to democracy. The world is a better place because of him. He will be missed,” MacKay said.

Striking the Nedlloyd Kimberly


ILWU Local 10 members helped put the anti-apartheid struggle in the national spotlight in 1984 when they refused to unload South African cargo from the Dutch ship, Nedlloyd Kimberly, at San Francisco’s Pier 80.

Although they unloaded the rest of the ship, the South African “bloody” cargo of steel, auto parts and wine remained in the ship’s hold for 10 days while community supporters held daily demonstrations outside protesting South Africa’s apartheid regime. At its peak, the demonstration reached an estimated 700 people. Employers tried to find another West Coast port to take the ship, but because of solidarity from other ILWU locals, no port was willing to accept the Nedlloyd Kimberly. Local 34 clerks played a crucial role in the action by identifying the South African cargo. The cargo was finally unloaded on the 11th day under threat of a federal injunction and fines for Local 10 and individual members.

“Fifty percent of the membership was black,” said Local 10 pensioner Lawrence Thibeaux who was the night-side Business Agent at the time. “To keep unloading cargo meant we were helping their government continue their program of apartheid.”

The contribution made by ILWU members to fighting apartheid was recognized by Mandela when he spoke at the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 shortly after his release from prison. “[The ILWU] established themselves as the front line of the anti-apartheid movement in the Bay Area,” Mandela said to the sold-out crowd.

The role of labor


Peter Cole, a professor of history at Western Illinois University is one of the few writers to highlight the important role played by labor unions in the global movement to end South African apartheid. “To my knowledge, no other US union engaged in work stoppages in support of the anti-apartheid struggle and ILWU was one of the few unions around the world to do so,” Cole said.

“The other documented instances of union workers taking strike action against South African apartheid were also dock workers—from the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) and the Maritime Union of Australia.”

Long history of ILWU support for the anti-apartheid struggle


The striking of the Nedlloyd Kimberly was the result of extensive organizing efforts by Local 10’s Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee (SALSC). The rank and file committee of black and white workers was formed in 1976 when Local 10 passed a resolution authored by member Leo Robinson after the Soweto student uprising and subsequent brutal repression by South African police.


SALSC was likely the first antiapartheid group formed in a labor organization. They raised awareness and material support for South Africa and other freedom struggles across the subcontinent including Mozambique, Namibia and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

In the 1970’s and 80’s Robinson with SALSC-member Larry Wright screened the documentary, Last Grave at Dimbaza, along the coast which helped to lay the foundation for the Nedlloyd Kimberly action.
After screening the film to 400 Local 10 members in 1984, Robinson offered a motion to boycott South African cargo on the next Nedlloyd line vessel that arrived.

Robinson, who passed away in January of 2013, was honored posthumously by the government of South Africa. Ebrahim Rassol, the South African Ambassador to the United States, presented the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award to Robinson’s widow, Mrs. Johnnie Bell Robinson, at Local 10’s March 2013 membership meeting where Robinson was recognized for his leadership in the Bay Area anti-apartheid movement.

Decades of opposition


The striking of the Nedlloyd Kimberly in 1984 was a part of long tradition in the ILWU of workers using their power on the docks to fight for social justice at home and abroad. In 1935 Local 10 dock workers refused to load metal that was bound for the war machines of fascist Italy and Japan. In the 1970s, Local 10 members refused to load US-made military supplies being shipped to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The ILWU Dispatcher newspaper began shining a spotlight on apartheid in 1948, the year the racist system was formally instituted by the South African National Party. Coverage by The Dispatcher increased in the 1950s and 60s as the anti-apartheid struggle began to heat up. A 1960 Dispatcher editorial drew comparisons between the South African system of segregation and Jim Crow in the American South. The editorial also noted the similarities between the brutal repressions by police forces in both countries of movements for social justice.

Also in 1960, the Longshore Caucus endorsed a boycott of South African Cargo. This resolution laid the foundation for a Local 10 boycott of a ship carrying South African cargo in 1962. Anti-apartheid activists held a community picket at Pier 19 in San Francisco protesting the Dutch ship Raki which was carrying hemp, coffee and asbestos from South Africa.

Over 100 Local 10 members refused to cross the community picket and the ship remained unloaded for both the day and night shifts. In 1963 The Dispatcher published a letter from Acting Secretary-General of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, John Gaetsewe, thanking ILWU members for their solidarity in the fight against apartheid.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, the ILWU general convention passed numerous resolutions against apartheid and racial injustice throughout Southern Africa.  Other resolutions criticized US policy of “business as usual” with South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1976, Local 10, Local 13, the International Executive Board and the Southern California District Council supported a boycott of South African and Rhodesian cargo and in 1977 Local 6 set up a South African support committee.

As early as 1978 the ILWU began the process of divesting pension fund monies from companies that did business with South Africa. Because the pension fund is jointly managed with the employers, ILWU activists had to lobby the employers to support the divestment policy.

Local 26 President Luisa Gratz recalled that in the early 1980’s ILWU warehouse workers at Thrifty Drug Stores in Southern California discovered that the store was selling flannel shirts made in South Africa. “We approached the company when we found this out and told them we did not want to handle these South African goods. To their credit, Thrifty removed the product from their stores and warehouses and discontinued the item.” In April of 1985, then ILWU International President Jimmy Herman, International Secretary-Treasurer Curtis McClain, Local 6 President Al Lannon and IBU Patrolman Charlie Clarke were arrested for civil disobedience along with other labor activists at a sit-in at the offices of South African Airways.

During the 1985 ILWU General Convention, Harry Bridges joined convention delegates at large anti-apartheid demonstration on the campus of UC Berkeley.

“The decades-long activism among rank-and-file members of the ILWU is a wonderful example of the power of ordinary people to make the world more just,” said Professor Cole. “Few historians have, thus far, investigated the important role of workers and unions in the American branch of the global fight against apartheid. Fortunately, South Africans–including none other than Nelson Mandela–very much appreciated the centrality of working class power to their cause. That Mandela thanked the ILWU for its 1984 boycott of the Nedlloyd Kimberly is one example.

The South African ambassador to the USA honoring Leo Robinson, posthumously, is another. I hope that the ILWU continues to take such principled stands when needed. And, it will be needed!”

“Harry Bridges and Nelson Mandela both understood that the struggle for workers and the struggle for civil rights was the same fight,” said Melvin Mackay. “That ILWU members used their power on the docks to support the freedom struggle in South Africa reflects the best traditions of this union: solidarity, racial equality, internationalism and working class power.”

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