Dockers matter/Dock matters: labour and race relations in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, 1960s and 1970s

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Seminar Date
August 4, 2010
My project examines dockworkers in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area (including Oakland in the East Bay), California in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. In both port cities and countries—as well as across the world—important labour, race, and other social movements exploded, forever changing. This paper contends that dockworkers and their collective actions (strikes, unionism) were central to many of the struggles for social justice in both places. Largely due to the invaluable writings of scholar-activist David Hemson, Durban’s dockers are understood as important in the history of South Africa’s working class but this paper contends that these workers’ roles is still underappreciated. Similarly, there is an established literature on San Francisco-Oakland’s longshore workers and union, though it is generally divorced from other aspects of this city’s important history. Thus, despite widespread awareness of these workers’ power and influence, they have not been fully connected to the larger milieux to which they belonged. Particularly in the U.S. historiography, the labour movement is absent from most studies of social movements in the 1960s and ‘70s; the invisibility of labour in the U.S. stands in marked contrast to the South African historiography, where there is widespread appreciation of the role of labour in the resurgent anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s. However, this paper also contends that the longshore union in the San Francisco Bay Area was vital to the burgeoning civil rights movements as well as other battles for social justice in the region. Just as Durban played the central role in the early 1970s freedom struggle (“the Durban moment”), so did “the Bay area” drive many of the social movements across the United States in this era. Hence, my paper begins to compare and contrast the experiences of Durban and Oakland dockers, their unions, and the social movements of each city in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, this essay only begin the examination of this complex subject. Ultimately, it is the contention of this paper and larger project that dockers must be positioned in the middle of the firestorms erupting in both places and—further—assert the centrality of these cities to the larger, nationwide struggles of those times.
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