UNITED STATES “There is a strong need for independent politics” An interview with Clarence Thomas, former Secretary Treasurer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, on the West Coast of the United States

An interview with Clarence Thomas, former Secretary Treasurer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, on the West Coast of the United States.

Tell us about the Juneteenth port shutdown up and down the West Coast   as well as the march and rally from the Port of 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, such as 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 the mid-1960s that, « the Negro movement and the labor movement have a lot in common. » King 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 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. »

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

The car caravan, march and rally were organized by the Committee to Stop Police Terror and Systemic Racism. 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!

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 Bishop, 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, and restaurants. It would transform the port into San Francisco’s Embarcadero, where only two 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 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 industry 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.

You are a member of the Organizing Committee of Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP). Isn’t it necessary to project the struggle 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 in defense of the Port of Oakland. But we will not be effective if we continue to wage this struggle with one arm tied behind our back. We need to run our own candidates to champion this struggle. We have to strike while the iron is hot.

Interview conducted on June 22 by Alan Benjamin
for The Organizer’s weekly Newsletter
and La Tribune des Travailleurs (French POID)