Don Watson was a quiet and determined ILWU activist who spent his life gently but effectively leading progressive organizing efforts in the union he loved. Watson died peacefully at his home in Oakland, CA on March 25. “He was content in the knowledge that he had a long and good life, had touched the lives of many people, and had contributed to making the world a better place,” said his wife Jane Colman.
A childhood in New York City during the Great Depression allowed him to witness struggles by labor organizers, including those by his father, Morris Watson, a respected writer for the Associated Press who organized newspaper workers and helped found the American Newspaper Guild before being fired. Watson’s termination became a high-profile test-case that helped establish the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act.
Like millions of Americans during the Depression, Morris Watson was attracted to left-wing political movements, and met Harry Bridges in 1942, who persuaded the family to relocate to San Francisco where Morris became founding editor of the new ILWU Dispatcher newspaper.
At sea with left-wing politics
As a teenager, Don recalled hearing Harry Bridges tell stories about his exciting times on the high seas, which encouraged Watson to join the merchant marine when he was still in high school. He traveled the world and met many trade unionists, including some who belonged to the Communist Party, whom he found to be especially impressive.
They encouraged him to join their ranks and get involved in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in 1948. That was a tumultuous year, with his union joining ILWU members in a waterfront strike challenged by the Taft- Hartley Act which had had just been enacted to limit union power. Also that year, third-party candidate Henry Wallace ran against Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, in an effort backed passionately by Don Watson, other Communist Party members and some liberals that received only a handful of votes on election day.
The late 1940’s and early 50’s were hard times for Watson and other leftwing activists, with the U.S. government waging a Cold War with the Soviet Union, fighting the Chinese in Korea, while anti-Communist hysteria became a national preoccupation. Watson was eventually barred from working at sea because of his political views, a process known as “screening” that was administered
by the U.S. Coast Guard. The practice was eventually ruled unconstitutional, but back then he and his supporters did their best to resist by organizing daily protests at the Coast Guard headquarters. Watson was drafted to fight in the Korean War but the Army first ordered him to admit that his father had been a member of the Communist Party – which Don refused to do – resulting in a questionable discharge
that was finally classified as “Honorable” years later.
At home in the ILWU
While still a members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS), Watson supported an ILWU organizing effort in 1955 to help his fellow MCS members find a safe haven in the Longshore union. That effort was blocked by government officials who were fearful and hostile toward left-wing members and leaders at both the MSC and ILWU.
Watson and many other U.S. seafarers soon found themselves “screened out” of work by the Coast Guard. Watson found temporary work as a rivet-catcher in a metal shop. It was during this period of upheaval that Watson was treated kindly by an Assistant Dispatcher at Local 34 who got him a permit card that allowed him to work on the docks. Within a year he became a member of the Marine Clerks Union – the same year that he quit the Communist Party after learning of mass killings in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s brutal regime that crushed democratic dissent inside the USSR and surrounding nations, including Hungary.
Retaining his left-wing values of social justice and worker rights, Watson operated with a persistent but low-key approach that won respect from his co-workers. He was elected to serve on the Local 34 Executive Board for 24 years and served as Chairman for 19.
Having experienced harsh treatment from reactionary politicians during the 1950’s, Watson understood the importance of supporting progressive political leaders. He became active in the ILWU’s Northern California District Council and served as the ILWU’s lobbyist in Sacramento. He joined the Young Democrats and the California Democratic Council – voice of the Democratic= Party’s liberal wing that supported civil and labor rights. In 1962 he was elected Vice Chair of the ILWU’s West Bay Legislative Committee. Within Local 34, he joined a group of reform activists who backed Jim Herman to replace a leader who resisted admitting African Americans and left-wing seamen to the Local, according to Watson.
Farm worker organizing
In the 1960’s, Watson began volunteering to help the United Farm Workers union (UFW), and encouraged the ILWU to support the UFW in every way possible, including actions on the docks and conducting research to help UFW lawyers in Salinas. With help from Herb Mills and Whitey Kelm of Local 10, he created a “$5-a-month club” to generate donations for the UFW. Watson also organized annual holiday drives, and during the 1970’s organized a monthly labor caravan that travelled from the
Bay Area to the UFW headquarters in Delano. By this time, Watson was volunteering most of his time to help the UFW and working only 800 hours a year on the waterfront.
UFW solidarity repaid
When longshore workers and clerks went on strike in 1971 for 134 days, Bay Area ILWU leaders chose Don Watson to serve as Secretary of the Joint Longshore Strike Assistance Committee. Watson was able to secure help from the United Farmworkers Union which organized massive food caravans to help striking longshore families the Bay Area.
Documenting labor history
Beginning in 1975, Watson began documenting the history of agricultural workers in California, going back to the 1930’s. In 1980 he co-founded the Bay Area Labor History Workshop to get feedback and support for himself and others who were documenting labor history without formal academic training. He ended up writing many papers and made presentations at meetings of historians, including the Southwest Labor History Association. He also supported the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University and served on their Advisory Board. During his final years, Watson struggled to collect his own papers and write his own personal history, making frequent trips to the ILWU International offices in San Francisco where he spent time in the Library, Archives and Communications Department.
Fortunately, Watson’s experiences and views were captured in detail thanks to an oral interview he conducted with historian Harvey Schwartz that was published in the 2009 book, Solidarity Stories. In that interview, Watson said he was thankful for the excellent health and pension benefits enjoyed by Longshore workers and Marine Clerks – but noted other workers haven’t been so lucky:
“We’re all facing ongoing privatization, deregulation, huge tax cuts for the wealthy along with growing state and national deficits – all of which hurts working people,” said Watson, who remained committed to reaching out to non-union workers and helping them organize – because he believed it would benefit both the “unorganized” and ILWU members alike.
During the mid-1990’s, Watson became interested in a San Francisco labor history project that aimed to honor waterfront workers by preserving a vintage crane on the City’s waterfront. Watson served Secretary for many years on the Copra Crane Labor Landmark Association (CCLLA), an effort now being overseen by the Port of San Francisco.
As a pensioner, Watson remained active in his union through the Bay Area Pensioners club and continued to be active in community politics, including a feisty campaign that pushed for labor and environmental standards in the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico (NAFTA). In that struggle against powerful corporate interests backing NAFTA, Watson joined with labor and community activists who challenged local politicians, including Congress member Nancy Pelosi, who ended up voting for the controversial corporate trade pact.
Running and romance
In the late 1970’s, Watson resumed an interest in long-distance running that started on his high school track team. He joined several Bay Area running clubs, including the Berkeley Running Club after moving to Oakland in 1982, where he met his wife Jane Colman, with whom he shared the love of running. They ran many races together, including 5 kilometers, half-marathons and the Pikes Peak Ascent. He told ILWU Librarian Robin Walker that one of his greatest experiences involved visiting South Africa for the Comrades Marathon. After he stopped running in 2005, Watson remained active by walking in races, taking photographs and encouraging the runners. A serious bout with scoliosis left him hunched over with limited mobility, but he never complained and remained active until his final days.
Watson leaves behind his wife Jane Colman, sisters Priscilla Laws and Wendy Watson, stepchildren Caitlin and Roland McGrath, nieces, nephews and many friends who will miss his sweet smile and gentle manner. A celebration of his life will be held at 1pm on Saturday, May 23 at the Local 34 Hall in San Francisco. Donations in Don Watson’s memory can be made to the Labor Archives and Research Center, J. Paul Leonard Library, Room 460, San Francisco State University, 1630 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132.