Peter Cole's ‘Dockworker Power’ Highlights Transnational Struggles for Justice

Historians in the News
tags: books, Race, labor history

Ralph Callebert teaches global and African history at Virginia Tech. His research interests are in African and global history, global labor history, gender and households, and the informal economy. He has a Ph.D. in history from Queen’s University in Canada and received an M.A. from the Department of Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter @RCallebert.

Dockworkers are a favorite subject for many labor historians—including myself. Historically, they have proven themselves reliably radical and strike-prone, and together with other maritime workers they helped spread strikes, unrest, and revolutionary ideals from port to port. Longshore workers represent a workforce at the forefront of a fabled labor internationalism. There is thus an extensive literature on dockworkers and their activism. Peter Cole’s Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area fits in this tradition.

In Dockworker PowerCole compares dockers’ activism, organization, and working conditions in two important global ports from the 1940s to today; these ports are the San Francisco Bay Area and Durban, South Africa. In doing so, he addresses a number of important gaps in the literature on dock labor: it is one of the first major studies to compare a port in the Global North to one in the Global South, if not the first, and there is a dearth of research on how containerization transformed work and organization on the docks (5). The impact of containerization, a dramatic technological change that transformed dock labor and global shipping, is one of the main themes of this book. Another key theme is how dockworkers in Durban and the Bay Area “fought for racial equality in their home countries as well as abroad” (2).

Dockworker Power emphasizes the important efforts of dockworkers in the Bay Area, organized in the racially integrated Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). It draws out their role in the civil rights movement and other domestic social movements. However, the American labor movement, Cole argues, frequently does not get the recognition it deserves in histories of these movements. In South Africa, on the other hand, the role of workers’ activism in the struggle against apartheid is well-documented. Nevertheless, Durban’s dockworkers specifically receive short shrift here (84-85). Another key point is that the impact of changes in technology and labor regimes depends on workers’ union power and legal status. The decasualization of labor in the Bay Area thus benefited workers represented by a strong union. Moreover, while automation and containerization weakened their union, Bay Area workers did manage to get a “share of the machine” (149) through better pay. In Durban these changes came entirely at the expense of workers, as the entirely Black workforce lacked legal rights to organize under apartheid (118-19).

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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