Juneteenth 29-Port Shutdown, an Historic Success! Interview with ILWU Local 10 Retiree Clarence Thomas

(reprinted from The Organizer Weekly Newsletter No. 2 — June 25, 2020)

The Organizer: Tell us about the Juneteenth [June 19] port shutdown up and down the West Coast of the United States, as well as the march and rally from the Port of Oakland to Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland.

Clarence Thomas: All 29 ports on the West Coast, including the Port of Vancouver in Canada, were shut down for eight hours to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The outpouring of workers and youth was huge, far exceeding any of our expectations; some estimates place the turnout as high as 25,000 people. A number of unions, including SEIU Local 1021, joined our effort.

One of the rally speakers underscored the historic significance of our action when he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, who had told an ILWU rally in September 1967 that, “the Negro movement and the labor movement have a lot in common.” King, who was made an honorary ILWU member, then added, “It was not the so-called ‘Protestant ethic’ that built the wealth and power of this nation, it was slavery.”

Willie Adams, the first African American president of the ILWU, addressed the Juneteenth rally and pledged the union’s continued support to the fight against police brutality. “This action,” Adams stated, “comes on the heels of the June 9th action in which the ILWU Coast Longshore Division stopped work coastwide at 9 am for nine minutes in honor of George Floyd, joining the chorus of voices protesting police brutality and systemic racism.”

The Organizer: How was such a broad-based march and rally organized in such short a time?

Clarence Thomas: The car caravan, march and rally were organized by the Committee to Stop Police Terror and End Systemic Racism, initiated by the ILWU. The committee brought together representatives of labor and communities of the oppressed. Building this alliance with our community partners was central to our success.

Our march route, to give an example, included a stop at the Oakland Police Department. Community activists, including former political prisoners, spoke about their experiences with the Oakland police. Thousands chanted, “No Justice, No Peace — No Racist Police!” The message was clear: Divest from the Police, Invest in Our Communities!

The Organizer: One of your Juneteenth demands included stopping the privatization of the Port of Oakland. Tell us about this struggle.

Clarence Thomas: The Bay Area ILWU locals have spearheaded the formation of a broad coalition — the East Oakland Stadium Alliance — to prevent the privatization of the Howard Terminal in the Port of Oakland, the first step in the drive to privatize the entire port.

John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team, wants to build a new A’s stadium at Howard Terminal. The plan includes high-end housing, malls, fancy restaurants, and the like. It would transform the Port of Oakland into something like San Francisco’s Embarcadero, where only two maritime terminals — Nos. 27 and 35 — remain. It would destroy thousands of longshore and other union jobs. Most important, it would drive thousands of Black families out of West Oakland in a massive gentrification onslaught. We have argued that the A’s should remain in East Oakland.

One of our major obstacles in this effort is the Democratic Party, not to mention the unions that remain tied at the hip to the Democrats. They have joined forces with the real-estate moguls and developers to push through this corporate, racist, neo-liberal scheme.

We in the ILWU have embraced the slogan of the Million Worker March: “Mobilizing In Our Own Name.” We did not allow any members of the political class to speak at our rally — and we had lots of requests from very high places. We believe that labor and oppressed communities should speak in our own name. No one can speak for us like we can speak for ourselves.

The Organizer: You are a member of the Organizing Committee of Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP), one of whose two main goals is to build labor-community coalitions to run independent candidates at a local level as part of the effort to lay the groundwork for a new, independent Labor-based political party. Isn’t it necessary to project the struggle being waged in the streets against the privatization of the Port of Oakland into the political arena with independent labor-community candidates?

Clarence Thomas: Absolutely. There is a strong need for independent politics. Our Juneteenth action was the strongest and most militant demonstration to date in defense of the Port of Oakland. But we will not be fully effective if we don’t run our own candidates to champion this struggle. We have to strike while the iron is hot.

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