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RIP Leo Robinson, Soul of the Longshore
by repost of David Bacon article
Wednesday Jan 23rd, 2013 11:07 AM
Photo: David Bacon

Leo Robinson believed that immediate changes were important because they are steps to a more just world. He once spoke in a packed church in West Oakland to the ones he called the "young comrades." He described his vision of a more just society, in which working people weren't exploited for private gain, one that would abolish racism and sexism.
RIP Leo Robinson, Soul of the Longshore

David Bacon
January 19, 2013 Portside

Leo Robinson was a leader of the longshore union in San Francisco. He died this week. For many of us, he was an example of what being an internationalist and a working-class activist was all about.

Leo Robinson came into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) because of a deal made by Harry Bridges and the Communists who led the waterfront strike of 1934. That strike metastasized into three-day general strike after cops shot and killed two strikers on what became known as "Bloody Thursday." It was the birth of the ILWU and changed the political history of the West Coast for decades to come.

At the time, longshoremen were considered bums; every morning, they had to assemble in a "shape-up" and beg a job from the bosses.

The radical leaders on the docks were both black and white. But the bosses always showed preference for the white gangs. Black crews got the worst jobs, when they were hired at all. Every worker on the dock was hungry, poor and desperate for work, but Black dockers were the hungriest of all.

As the strike went on, the gang bosses began looking for men who would cross the mass picket lines and start taking cargo off the waiting ships. To keep them from recruiting Black workers, the strike leaders went out into the neighborhoods of Black workers and made a promise. The union, they said, was fighting to break the gang bosses' control over jobs by demanding a hiring hall run by workers, where no one would pay for a job or beg work from a foreman. If Black workers would support the strike, African Americans would get jobs like anyone else, and the color lines would come down.

The union won the strike and the promise was kept. The ILWU in the Bay Area became an integrated union with powerful, articulate Black leaders. Some of them became heavyweights in San Francisco politics, where they broke the color line as well. In the city's African-American neighborhoods, longshoremen--and eventually longshorewomen--were respected, raised families, sent their kids to college.

That was quite a step up. From waterfront bums, dockworkers became crane drivers--some of the best-paid workers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The union held real political power.

Eventually Local 10, the longshore union for northern California, became a union with a mostly Black membership. It was more than a source of good jobs--it was an institution that brought power to the community. And as waterfront work went across the bay, from San Francisco to the Port of Oakland, the longshore workers of Oakland's Black community had those same good jobs, ones their children and neighbors aspired to.

That's where Leo lived--on the border between north and west Oakland. That's where I grew up. I didn't know Leo as a kid, but I knew the schools his children went to, the streets where they hung out, and the language they spoke.

I got to know Leo when he became a leader of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. With Geraldine Johnson and David Stewart, they used the CBTU to try to reach into other Bay Area unions and encourage the same kind of progressive politics they knew in Local 10.

This was the 1970s, an era when apartheid rode high South Africa, the years of the Sharpeville Massacre, passbook laws, and the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). But it was also the era of the Cold War. The ANC, the SACP and the SACTU were all called terrorist organizations by our government and accused of taking help from the Soviet Union.

Red-baiting didn't stop Leo, David and Geraldine. They saw a connection between Oakland and Johannesburg. They believed that Black people would not be free in the United States if they were not free in South Africa, and were determined to end the support given by the U.S. government that kept the apartheid regime alive.

Leo knew that workers in both countries had the potential to break that tie. If longshoremen in San Francisco could find a way to support Black workers in South Africa, it would help the liberation movement there survive and win. At the same time they would change the conditions for Black workers here at home.

Their work began when the anti-apartheid movement was still small.

Together with other labor activists they brought leaders of SACTU to the Bay Area when the hierarchy of the AFL-CIO, then still under the influence of the cold warriors, refused to support them.

One of the first things I learned about Leo was that he was not afraid of being called a Red. He took pride in it. "When some people insult you and call you a Red," he said, "that's when you know you're really doing good work. When you're hurting the racists, that's their weapon of choice."

He was a tremendous speaker. The best photograph I ever took of Leo was while he was talking in a union meeting about safety conditions on the docks. He had the full attention of every union member in Local 10's cavernous waterfront union hall. Leo was an agitator, but people listened to him because what he said made sense to them. He knew how to speak their language.

In 1984, Local 10, the Marine Clerks Union Local 34, and members of the Inlandboatmen's Union, together refused to unload the Nedlloyd Kimberley, a ship from South Africa docked in San Francisco Bay. For eleven days, they defied the threats of the ship owners. They didn't just take advantage of a technicality in their contract allowing them to respect outside picket lines. They used the power they'd won in the hiring hall, dispatching members to unload the ship who would refuse to do the work when they arrived on the pier. Local 10 members risked their union for a principle, something the ship owners here have never forgotten, or forgiven.

Leo was a leader of that action. The ship boycott was ended under the threat of a federal injunction. But then the hundreds of union and community activists who'd turned out to demonstrate every day on the docks moved their picket line to Oakland. There they demonstrated against the Pacific Maritime Association, the shipowners, every day for two years.

That was the real birth of the anti-apartheid movement in northern California. Eventually the shipowners could no longer bring South African cargo into any port on the West Coast. Cities like Oakland and San Francisco divested from companies with South African operations. And when apartheid fell, Nelson Mandela came to Oakland and acknowledged what Leo, CBTU, the ILWU, and our Free South Africa Movement had fought for through the years.

I was chair of the Bay Area Free South Africa Labor Committee for many of those years. I worked with Leo and helped build a relationship between the ILWU and South African unions, especially the Congress of South African Trade Unions in a liberated South Africa. Those ties, and that international perspective, is part of the life of the ILWU today and part of the legacy Leo leaves behind him.

Leo's political commitments extended beyond South Africa. He worked for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He protested police brutality in the Oakland where he lived for many years. He defended the union he loved, and unions and workers everywhere.

Most important, Leo Robinson believed that immediate changes were important because they are steps to a more just world. He once spoke in a packed church in West Oakland to the ones he called the "young comrades." He described his vision of a more just society, in which working people weren't exploited for private gain, one that would abolish racism and sexism. He gave that vision a name--socialism--at a time when the media claimed that socialism was dead, and capitalism was the best humankind could hope for.

"I know that's a lie," he shouted out. "The world depends on us, on our labor. And we have the right to decide what kind of world it's going to be."

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EGT-Longview Longshore Contract- Worst Ever!

June 21, 2012

We, ILWU members and retirees, strongly oppose the newly negotiated EGT contract for Longshore Local 21 in Longview, WA. It heads our union in the wrong direction at the wrong time, caving into employer intimidation and greed just before we begin the Northwest Grainhandlers’ contract negotiations. And the 2014 Longshore Contract negotiations are just around the bend. We must give full all-out support to the ILA who are now facing tough bargaining on the East and Gulf Coasts. They gave us theirs. Unions and employers are looking closely at the EGT contract. Read it at In April, the rank and file at the Portland Longshore Local 8 meeting challenged the union tops’ direction taken with EGT. Here are some of the fundamental union points they raised with International President McEllrath and Coast Committeman Sundet, who attended the meeting and directed the EGT campaign:

1. The historic gain of the ’34 Big Strike, the union hiring hall, was gutted. This contract completely surrenders a fair order of dispatch and allows the employer to establish their own lists, one for the ship and one for shoreside, and to fire any worker without cause. For the first time the slave labor Taft-Hartley Act, intended to destroy the union hiring hall and militant actions, has been codified into our contract. A sad first in our proud history of fighting Taft-Hartley!

2. For the first time ever this contract allows employers to do our work with superintendents and sub-contractors, i.e. scabs during 1) stop work meetings, 2) health and safety beefs, 3) bona fide picket lines! And to top it all off, 4) Bloody Thursday which we commemorate every year for the labor martyrs of the 1934 Maritime Strike killed by police by shutting down all West Coast ports!

3. The ILWU International claims a jurisdiction “victory” at EGT. What victory? Local 701 Operating Engineers scabs are still working at EGT. If we take job action to kick out the scabs, we’re fired at the “sole discretion of the employer”. No arbitration. That point is emphasized 14 times in the 15 page document. So where’s longshore division jurisdiction that we supposedly won?! Our ship clerks were left out and so was IBU, our marine division, that backed us 100%.

4. After every successful contract negotiation there is always a “no reprisal” or amnesty clause to protect members and officers that were on the front lines of the battle. In the EGT contract there is NO protection for our members who inspired workers across the country by their bold actions in defense of our union and now they’re going to jail while our union is facing big fines. Where are our “leaders”?

5. The employers can rip up the contract and hire scabs if longshore workers take 3 job actions like the ones that built our union in the first place or if we don’t pay a company-dictated fine of $1,500 per hour of a work stoppage within 15 days.

6. Worst is that the membership of Longview Local 21 never even had a chance to read the contract first, then vote on it as the ILWU International Constitution guarantees. That violates the ILWU International Constitution (Article XIII Section 1. Agreements, Strikes, Lockouts and Boycotts). After leading the biggest labor struggle in years, Local 21 members were denied the most basic union right--the right to vote on their contract!

We, ILWU members and retirees, support the right of Local 21 members to vote on the EGT contract AFTER reading it. Until then, it should be declared null and void. Renegotiate it! This was not an agreement. It was an EGT dictat agreed to by the International and left to local officers to sign!

Local 10: Anthony Leviege #9576, Howard Keylor #20447 ret.,

Richard Washington #9402, Jack Heyman #8780 ret.,

Larry Wright #8534 ret., Leo Robinson #6461 ret.,

Herb Mills #6251 ret. Secretary-Treasurer 1977-1981

Local 8: Jack Mulcahy #82013, Chris Colie #80869 ret.,

Delbert Green #81091 ret.

San Francisco IBU: Steve Ongerth, Robert Irminger

by Labor flowers
Thursday Jan 24th, 2013 9:55 PM
It is amazing that an alleged labor supporter would compare a general strike to a cancerous process, as it is cancer which metastasizes as it destroys the body. When labor has strength to carry out a general strike, it is flowering, growing, flexing its muscle or broadening horizons.
by Observer
Friday Jan 25th, 2013 11:32 PM
This above was a mostly accurate political obit . But Bacon ''forgot '' to mention a few things .
First off Leo Robinson was a open member of the CPUSA during most of his adult life .
A major reason for his candor re his membership was that the ILWU , unlike almost every other US Union , did not and still doesn't have a Anti-Communist clause.
His union brothers and sisters knew about Robinson's support for the CP. Many other trade unionists did also as well as the entire Bay area Left.
So why doesn't Bacon mention that significant fact ?
Secondly several yrs ago Leo was a major organizer of the '' Million Workers March ''. There was no real march and the crowd at the Washington DCrally didn't number more than a few thousand , But it was a admirable attempt to asset Labor power on a National Stage independent of both Capitalist parties.
That last part was why the AFL-CIO tops strongly opposed it (and maybe why Bacon didn't mention it ! )
Lastly was Leo Robinson's opposition to the terrible contract imposed on ILWU 21 by the International leadership of the ILWU . But Bacon praised that deal even though Local 21's members didn't even get to vote up or down !
So no mystery why Bacon. who never likes to upset the Misleaders of the labor movement ,didn't mention that principled rejection of the sellout .