This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference
The Durban Strikes were one of the pivotal moments in the struggle against apartheid but some of its lessons still need to be (re)learned. No doubt, the Durban Strikes demonstrated the potential of workers to shape their society, including politically. However, less understood is that the strikes which preceded and sparked the Durban Strikes occurred on the waterfront. My book, Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area (University of Illinois Press, 2018) compares the histories of militant dockers in two important ports, and a major focus is the Durban Strikes. I contend that strikes and threatened strikes by dockers in 1969, 1971, and late 1972 served as an inspiration for the enormous strike wave that began in January 1973 and which spread way beyond the Point. My book also examines how dockers used their power at a pivotal node of capitalism—ports in the global supply chain—to influence how governments act, at home and abroad. For instance, San Francisco dockers occasionally refused to unload cargo from South Africa from 1962 through the 1980s. Similarly, Durban dockers used this same tactic to criticize governments in Zimbabwe (2008) and Israel (2010s and 2020s). My presentation will discuss these historical matters and then pivot to the 21st century where dockers in Durban, SF Bay Area, Marseilles, Valparaiso, and other ports continue to insert themselves into global politics by boycotting certain cargoes and ships. My intention is to highlight how dockers—and, by extension, other workers, particularly in logistics—possess the power to shape our world. My presentation will address how (dock)workers, when well organized and educated, can shape our ever-more-intertwined global economy and society.
Peter Cole is Professor of History, Western Illinois University (USA) and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. He wrote Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, winner of the Philip Taft Labor History Book Prize, and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. He co-edited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW and edited Ben Fletcher: The Life & Times of a Black Wobbly. He is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19).