Unions Are Taking a Stand for Black Lives

Unions Are Taking a Stand for Black Lives

Unions Are Taking a Stand for Black Lives

A dock shutdown in Oakland heralds an alliance between antiracist activism and organized labor.


Last Friday morning, thousands made their way to the Port of Oakland to gather for one of many national mobilizations planned for Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. In what has emerged as a daily ritual in many American cities, protesters carried placards denouncing systemic racism and expressing solidarity with black Americans killed by law enforcement. But in Oakland, the proceedings went a step further, bringing economic activity to a halt at one of the busiest ports in the United States.

The action was one of 29 port shutdowns along the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, organized by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has a strong history of throwing its weight behind demands for racial justice. After weeks of protests across the country, Friday’s mobilization offered a fresh glimpse at the intersection of organized labor and anti-racist activism—one that many at the rally hoped would gain momentum moving forward.

“You represent the potential and the power of the labor movement,” said Angela Davis, the activist and former member of the Black Panther Party, to the assembled crowd. “Whenever the ILWU takes a stand, the world feels the reverberations,” she said, listing the dockworker union’s history of activism—against, for example, the internment of Japanese Americans and apartheid in South Africa, in support of civil rights, and in solidarity with past victims of police violence.

On Friday, ILWU Local 10, which is majority black, joined forces with other ILWU locals and Bay Area social justice organizations, not just calling to divest from Oakland’s bloated police department—which receives 44 percent of public spending—but to denounce a rezoning project that would transform the port into a sprawling complex with a sports stadium, condominiums, and mixed retail. Protesters marching through Oakland chanting, “Stop the cranes and say their names,” drew attention to the racist undercurrents not just of law enforcement but of urban policy, and the urgent overlap between workers’ rights, economic equality, and racial justice.

Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and one of the fastest-gentrifying US cities, puts that dynamic into sharp relief. Between 2000 and 2016, city police killed 90 people, three-quarters of whom were black. And like other cities in the Bay Area, Oakland has seen a massive spike in housing costs that has pushed out people of color and low-income residents. In 1980, black residents made up nearly half of the city’s population; today, they make up less than a quarter. West Oakland, where the port is located and serves as a critical source of employment, has been a focal point in the city’s gentrification.

For Cat Brooks, the executive director of the Justice Teams Network, a California-based organization that advocates racial justice, the convergence of labor and racial justice should be clear—in Oakland, and nationally. “People always think about labor and community, but labor is community,” she said. “When you look at unions, the vast majority are black and brown, and the vast majority of people targeted by state violence are black and brown. It’s not just about state violence, but about economic violence,” she added.

The privatization of the port, she explained, can’t be divorced from the broader fight for racial justice, and has strong parallels to rezoning projects in other US cities. “Today, we’re collectively having a conversation about what kind of community we want to live in. One where working-class people can’t afford to live? A city with no remnants of its black community, where officials are bought off by powerful developers?”

The protesters who turned out on Friday echoed that sentiment. For local activist Jazmin Garces, 20, the scene in Oakland was a microcosm of broader national tensions. “We need to send a message that private development often adds to discrimination against black and brown laborers, and that’s not something that’s been said loudly enough. So many black and brown people work here at the port,” she said. The action, she added, was a reminder that police violence is one element of broader structural racism.

Others stressed that labor should seize on the current moment to strengthen its alliance with those calling for an end to violent policing and demanding disinvestment from law enforcement. “We’re at a turning point in history and labor has to use its power, or we’re going to lose it,” said Becca Lewis, 39, who traveled from Portland for the Oakland rally. “The working class has an immense amount of power to actually withhold their labor and shut things down.” Unions, she added, have “been way too slow to react to Black Lives Matter, partly because they’re still harboring police inside of the movement.”

Friday’s action hints at a new opportunity for collaboration between organized labor and anti-racism advocacy, potentially even further than ILWU has achieved before. “What the ILWU pulled off is unprecedented,” said Peter Cole, a historian at Western Illinois University who published a book about Bay Area dockworkers and racial justice. Last week’s mobilization, he noted, drew in far more of the union’s local chapters than in the past. “It’s the first time an entire union has taken such a bold stance on behalf of something that for many people, may not seem like it has anything directly to do with the union.”

Outrage over the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on working-class black and Latinx Americans has contributed to that momentum. “There’s been this perception that the working class is white and racist,” Cole said. “But now everyone sees it’s clear that the majority of working-class people are in fact nonwhite.”

“Black and brown people are losing loved ones. They’re the essential workers at the grocery store, and at the post office,” Brooks said. “And then on top of that, now you’re going to kneel on our necks, too?”

Covid-19’s racial disparities, coupled with the recent spate of anti-black violence, she said, have “combined to create an explosion of working-class rage with a racial dimension,” playing out on a national scale.

The alignment has been building over the past several years, as labor unions have increasingly worked in step with Black Lives Matter, responding to multinationals’ attempts to block unionization among majority-black labor forces. Union leadership, long notorious for being “pale, male, and stale,” is also becoming more diverse, with growing representation of women and people of color in high-ranking positions—including at the ILWU, which named its first black international president, William Adams, in 2018.

While that collaboration has long been central to the ILWU’s mission, other unions are now displaying a heightened concern for racial justice—in part by reassessing the presence of police among their ranks. Last week in Washington state, King County’s largest labor council expelled the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, responding to protesters’ demands. On Friday, the SEIU, one of the most powerful unions in the United States with a membership of 2 million, pledged to align itself with the Movement for Black Lives, called to divest from the police, and acknowledged the demand to eliminate police unions from the labor movement. On Monday, Workers United in Upstate New York, which represents nearly 10,000 workers in New York state, called on the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, to cut ties with the International Union of Police Associations, the coalition’s largest police union.

“This is a really interesting moment, where folks are trying to do better,” Brooks said. “If the AFL-CIO says its mission is to protect working-class people, how can they ally with forces that harm working-class bodies?”

Actions like Friday’s, Cole said, “show how powerful it is to hold an eight-hour strike. It sends the message that unions don’t just fight for their members—they fight for causes.”

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