Dockworker unions gather in Durban, South Africa

By Lyse Comins

The following article first appeared in South Africa’s Freight News, Jan. 25, 2023. ( Lyse Comins is a freelance journalist in Durban, South Africa. 

Dockworker union representatives descended on Durban, South Africa’s busiest port, on the last weekend in January to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic 1973 Durban strikes. The strike wave preceded the formation of the country’s powerful trade union movement.

Unions attending the conference included the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, based on the U.S. West Coast, the Revolutionary Transport Union of South Africa (RETUSA) and the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa.

The 1973 strike wave saw some 100,000 African and Indian workers go on strike over wages and working conditions, impacting more than 100 companies, from textile and brick factories to metal and chemical plants. The strikes were followed by the formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions in 1979 and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985, which played a pivotal role in the liberation struggle against apartheid.

In 1984 members of the ILWU’s San Francisco Bay Area Locals 10 and 34 refused to offload South African cargo for 11 days, inspiring local residents to join the U.S. anti-apartheid movement.

ILWU Local 10 retired Secretary-Treasurer Clarence Thomas told a media briefing in Durban that dockworkers “held a strategic position of power.” He said dockworkers “have more leverage than any workers in the world, being at the point of the global supply chain, because when we shut down — rail, trucking, cargo flight schedules — the food we eat, the fuel we put into cars, computers, handheld devices and the shoes we wear, all come off a ship. There are no workers in the world that understand capitalism better than longshore workers, because before the cargo can be stored it has to come off that ship – and if we don’t load or offload it, nothing is going to happen.”

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