San Francisco — Under the dome of the William B. Chester Hiring Hall of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in San Francisco, hundreds gathered March 23 to honor the life and legacy of one of the most important modern-era, longshore rank-and-file, working-class strategists and leaders, Leo Robinson, who died Jan. 14.
A posthumous Nelson Mandela Freedom Award for Robinson was presented to his spouse Johnnie Robinson by the South African Ambassador to the U.S., the Honorable Ebrahim Rasool. ILWU Local 10 received the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award from the Honorable Cyril S. Ndaba, South African Consul General.
The award to Robinson recognized the power of a rank-and-file worker to change U.S. foreign policy. It was Robinson who responded to the Soweto massacre by writing a simple resolution in 1977 calling for the union to boycott apartheid. Subsequent organizing with the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee led to longshore workers refusing to unload apartheid exports on the Nedlloyd Kimberly ship for 11 days.
Leo Robinson, the movement builder, freedom fighter, community activist and internationalist who loved his bottom-up democratic union, was evoked in eloquent stories by active longshore workers and retirees.
Nearing 90 years of age, retiree Cleophas Williams spoke of Arthur Robinson, Leo’s longshore father. In 1949 there was a painful vote on the floor of ILWU Local 10. Returning World War II veterans who were white wanted to send 800 African-American longshore workers back “to a form of slavery we had escaped during the war and come to Local 10.” Williams said, it was “men who looked just like [Leo’s] dad and just like me,” reflecting on how this may have made the younger Robinson the fighter he was. The African-American workers remained.
The fight for equality didn’t turn out the same way in the Pacific Northwest where African-American workers were literally driven out of the shipbuilding industry after World War II. Members of the African American Longshore Coalition from the Pacific Northwest who are in ILWU locals thanked Robinson for beginning the coalition — an internal union organization whose purpose is to address racism and other forms of discrimination. The AALC members testified that discrimination, particularly harming African-American women, continues to be a problem.
‘A fighter not afraid of anybody’
A visionary project supported and mentored by Robinson is the Million Worker March Movement. In 2004, a U.S. presidential election year, the MWM organized an independent workers’ demonstration in Washington, D.C., with a program that is still relevant. Organizers included Brenda Stokely, former American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 1707 president in New York City; Saladin Muhammad, from United Electrical Workers Local 150 and Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina; Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808 in Long Island City, N.Y.; and Trent Willis, past president of ILWU Local 10.
Stokely recalled meeting Robinson at a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists convention where her New York chapter introduced many resolutions. She said it was good to know there was “another fighter, a smart fighter, who was not afraid of anybody. He strengthened all of our backs. … He wasn’t just an orator, he was a freedom fighter. … He was about fighting for justice and what was right. … He proved that they couldn’t stop workers who were conscious and organized. … He was about the independence of the working class, the only class that has any power in this society or any society.”
The ILWU Local 10 Drill Team honored their fallen brother. The Vukani Mawethu Choir sang the tribute which had been sung at the funeral of slain South African freedom fighter Steve Biko.
International solidarity letters were received from the National Railway Motive Power Union, Dora Chiba, in Dora Chiba, Japan; the Worker’s Central Union of Cuba; and the Coordinadora of Spain. An additional tribute letter was received from the Honorable Cyril S. Ndaba, South African Consul General. Clarence Thomas, past secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10 and MWM co-chair, chaired the event. A message from ILWU International President Bob McEllrath was also read.