Sunday, April 28, 2019

Peter Cole's "Dockworker Power"

Peter Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University and a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area is his second book. Previously, he wrote Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia, co-edited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, and edited Ben Fletcher: The Life & Times of a Black Wobbly.

Cole applied the “Page 99 Test” to Dockworker Power and reported the following:
In 1969 O. P. F. Harwood, an economist at the (white only) University of Natal-Durban, in South Africa boasted, “Labour at the Port of Durban is not a problem, as it is, for example, at the ports of the United Kingdom, where it is regarded as their most serious problem.” Though he can be forgiven for failing to predict the future, Harwood continued, “In Durban harbour this problem hardly exists.” Instead, that very year, Durban dockers struck—the first signs that the black working class in South Africa was reawakening. They threatened to do so in 1971 and struck again in late 1972. While these workers, in fact, reignited a quiescent labor movement few know of their pivotal role. Instead, students of South African history are taught that, in January 1973, black workers at Coronation Brick downed tools and “officially” launched the so-called “Durban Strikes of 1973” the largest strike wave of black workers since 1946. It was just a few years after that last strike that the National Party, victorious in 1948 election, instituted the world’s most notorious system of white supremacy in the post-World War II world, apartheid (literally “apartness” in Afrikaans). The legendary Durban Strikes involved upwards of 100,000 workers from more than 150 companies, shocked the nation, and, restarted the national anti-apartheid movement that largely had been quiescent since its brutal repression a decade earlier. In the words of the editors of the South African Democracy Education Trust, creators of the most authoritative history of the struggle, “The revival of the workers’ movement in the factories, mines and stores was arguably the most important development of the 1970s.” This upsurge of black worker activism stunned most South Africans since the decade prior had been “quiet.” Left out of most histories is that, under the surface just prior to the Durban Strikes, local dockers were rising. While, no doubt, the Durban Strikes shattered the deafening silence following early 1960s repression, in fact, dockworker activism preceded and helped inspire the Durban Strikes.

Page 99 of my book explores the significance of the October 1972 dock strikes, which was about far more than a wage hike. I argue the dock strike helped launch the legendary Durban Strikes that erupted about two months later though the historical literature still understates the dockers’ import. As the title indicates, my book compares the histories of dockworkers in two historically significant port cities, their many decades of collective action, and why they used their power on behalf of racial equality and freedom.

Often missed in commentary on today's globalizing economy, dockworkers have ability to harness their role, at a strategic choke point, to promote labor rights and social justice causes. My book, a comparative study of Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, illuminates how unions effected lasting change in some of the most far-reaching struggles of modern times. First, dockworkers in each city drew on longstanding radical traditions to promote racial equality (including on Page 99). Second, they persevered when a new technology--container ships--sent a shockwave of layoffs through the industry. Finally, their commitment to black internationalism and leftist politics sparked transnational work stoppages to protest apartheid and authoritarianism. Dockworker Power brings to light surprising parallels in the experiences of dockers half a world away from each other.
Learn more about Dockworker Power at the University of Illinois Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue