On the Global Waterfront

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Suzan Erem and E Paul Durrenberger, Monthly Review Press, £12.99

On the Global Waterfront is a gripping account of the intersection of race and class in the US, in the tradition of the classic Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. Set on the docks of Charleston, South Carolina, in 2000, it is written as a detective story about racism, vicious state repression, and the power of the global working class.

The book demonstrates the critical importance of unions in organising against racism and institutional oppression. In 1875, only ten years after the abolition of slavery, the union representing longshoremen in Charleston had recruited 800 members, including many former slaves. The union had already been on strike several times, and was acknowledged as the most powerful organisation of the black working class of South Carolina. To this day, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 is the "wealthiest and blackest union" in a state with vicious anti-union laws, where the Confederate flag still flies in front of the Capitol building.

Longshoremen in Charleston are in a powerful position in the global economy. In 1999 Charleston was the second largest port on the east coast of the US, handling $63 million in cargo each day. In 1999 one shipping company decided to employ non-union longshoremen, which led to pickets by Local 1422 members. The pickets were attacked by 600 armed police as the campaign continued into 2000. Many workers were hospitalised and five were arrested facing serious charges.

The ILA national president responded by issuing a statement that Local 1422 members had broken the law. In contrast, the west coast based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) immediately invited the president of Local 1422 to speak to ILWU members and donated $50,000 to Local 1422. The police attack took place only six weeks after the famous World Trade Organisation demonstrations of November 1999. The ILWU shut down all US west coast ports on the day of the WTO meeting, and participated in the "Battle of Seattle" demonstration. They knew the power of solidarity. As Local 1422 president Ken Riley expressed it, "Thank god there were people like you who knew what struggle was."

The book brings to life a vibrant example of the global labour movement at work, but I wish the authors had included more details of the debates and grassroots organising within Local 1422. Nonetheless, I couldn't put this book down. It is an inspiring and accessible piece of labour history which should be read and discussed throughout the labour and anti-racist movements and beyond.