‘Black and a Red’: Rank-and-file ILWU Local 10 leader Leo Robinson linked local and global fights for justice

Following is a presentation by Clarence Thomas, a retired member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in San Francisco. The event was “Reckoning with the Black Radical Tradition: A Conference in honor of Jack O’Dell on January 13, 2024, at the University of Washington in Seattle, sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

Thomas was part of a Black and Red on the Waterfront workshop moderated by Zack Pattin (ILWU Local 23). Panel members included Peter Cole, professor (Western Illinois University), and Gabriel Prawl (ILWU Local 52, President, A. Philip Randolph Institute).

Jack O’Dell (1923-2019) was a visionary intellectual and an astute organizer who helped shape the course of the Black freedom movement in the second half of the 20th century.

Reckoning With the Black Radical Tradition: A Conference in Honor of Jack O’Dell

A profile of Leo L. Robinson

Solidarity greetings to all assembled here for this important conference in honor of Brother Jack Hunter O’Dell. 

I had the honor and privilege of meeting Brother O’Dell in Oakland, California, in 2012. The occasion was a lecture sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris. It was part of a series of civil rights lectures by veterans of the movement. I shall always remember our relatively brief but memorable and meaningful conversation about the ILWU and Local 10 specifically. He was very well acquainted with the history of our union, including our then-recent “Shut Down Wall Street on the Waterfront,” a coordinated West Coast Port Blockade in solidarity with the Occupy movement.

When reckoning with the Black radical tradition inside of the ILWU, particularly Local 10, the person who comes to mind is Leo L. Robinson — a second-generation Longshore worker. In my opinion, Robinson is one of the more important rank-and-file leaders in the union’s modern era (1970s-90s). I say that because he was in the tradition of the founders of the ILWU, leftists who were committed to rank-and-file democracy, as well as the working class at home and abroad. 

Like Jack O’Dell, Leo was “Black and a Red!”

Labor historian Peter Cole described Leo Robinson in an article following his passing in 2013 thusly: “Legendary Local 10 activist, recently passed away. His intellect, commitment, passion, and savvy allowed him to help lead Local 10, though he served as an elected official only once. He loved this union and fought to improve the lives of all working people, but Robinson might be best known for leading the ILWU and the fight against racial oppression, in South Africa.“

Leo Robinson. Photo: David Bacon

Born May 26, 1937, in Shreveport, Louisiana, to the proud parents of Arthur Robinson Jr. and Pearl Lee Young. His mother moved to the West Coast in 1942 to work at the Moore Shipyard in Oakland and prepare a place for his family. His father and four siblings moved to Oakland in 1943.

Leo’s dad also worked at Moore Shipyard and was hired on the waterfront in 1944. This was the same year my maternal grandfather found work on the docks during the second great migration of African Americans to the Bay Area.

Leo attended public schools in both Los Angeles and Oakland. George Washington Carver Junior High School’s motto stuck with him all of his life. Leo said, “I’ll never forget. I remember it as “a man educated is easy to lead but impossible to enslave.” The quote is from Henry Peter Brougham: “Education makes people easy to lead but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.” 

Brougham, a British statesman, played a prominent role in passing the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Leo attended Oakland Technical High School and asked his mother for permission to join the Navy after completing the eleventh grade. Leo said, “I knew, running around with my hoodlum friends, that I wouldn’t graduate from the 12th grade.” 

He enlisted in the Navy in 1954 and spent three years, 11 months, 22 days, 11 hours, and 45 minutes of what he described as “wasted time.” He briefly worked for ILWU Local Two as a ship scaler. After working on an assembly line for General Motors, he became a longshore worker in 1963. 

When he came to the waterfront, he wasn’t that political. His issues were all local, and it was only later that it occurred to him that everything local was also national and international. During the Vietnam War, a question by a young longshore worker changed his political outlook for life and led him into activism. 

He said, “I want to ask you a question, and you don’t have to answer it now, but I want you to answer this question. Of what kind of threat do the Vietnamese pose to you?” Leo became politicized in the late ’60s, discussing the Vietnam War with fellow longshore workers and eventually joining the Communist party.

Photojournalist David Bacon wrote of Brother Robinson, “One of the things I learned about Leo was that he was not afraid of being called a Red. He took great pride in it.”

“When some people insult you and call you a Red,” Leo said, “that’s when you know you’re doing good work. When you’re hurting the racists, that’s their weapon of choice.“

With radical leaders on the docks, both Black and white, Leo’s emergence as a rank-and-file leader began to emerge in the early ‘70s. He became an active rank-and-file union member, vigilantly protecting workers’ rights, union democracy, and workers’ contracts. He was repeatedly elected to the local’s executive board and the union’s key decision-making body, the Longshore Caucus.

Local 10 predominantly African American

It is important to mention that ILWU Local 10 is the only predominantly African-American longshore local on the West Coast. It is also the most radical of all longshore locals in the ILWU. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Leo’s leadership exercised the power of the rank and file of Local 10 and the U.S. working class on the side of the South African liberation struggle and against the racist apartheid regime. In July 1976, after the SOWETO uprising and youth were massacred, Leo introduced the resolution to Local 10 for a boycott of goods to and from South Africa. 

Leo assisted in forming Local 10’s South Africa Liberation Support Committee (SALSC), the first anti-apartheid group in a U.S. labor union. In April 1977, he put the resolution into action. A 5,000-person-strong community picket was honored by ILWU Local 10 members, stalling South African cargo at San Francisco’s Pier 27 for two days at a time when then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress was slandered as terrorist by the U.S. government.

Leo was appointed by Local 10 to speak at rallies regarding anti-apartheid actions and the South African liberation movements, along with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and other community organizations. He organized the first trade union anti-apartheid conference at San Francisco State College and brought high officials from the African National Congress to San Francisco. 

The ILWU sponsored media events to bring the ANC and South African trade unionists involved in the liberation movement to the West Coast and beyond to speak on their struggles. They organized nightly meetings and radio interviews, traveled to other cities, raised funds, and worked with coalitions that raised money to build a clinic in Mozambique.

SALSC was successful in securing containers from longshore employers and collected tons of food and medical supplies for freedom fighters in Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The most impressive action of Local 10 occurred in 1984 when they initiated the longest boycott of South African cargo in U.S. history. 

When the Nedlloyd Kimberly docked at San Francisco Pier 80, Robinson and other longshore workers refused to touch the South African cargo, though they unloaded the rest of the ship’s contents. Thousands from the community rallied in support, and this cargo remained in the hold. Finally, on the 11th day, they unloaded it under pressure from the employers and a federal injunction that threatened massive fines on the union and leaders like Leo Robinson and others personally. 

This revolutionary, courageous act on the part of Local 10 and Local 34 immediately energized the Bay Area anti-apartheid movement, including students at the nearby University of California, Berkeley. It sparked a movement that spread throughout the West Coast and played a big part in anti-apartheid actions throughout the country.

Leo and his wife, Johnnie Pearl Robinson, opened their home to South African freedom fighters who were living underground in the U.S. They also provided financial support to some attending universities in the states. During this period, Leo, along with Sister Geraldine Johnson and several others, was a founding member of the Northern California chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. It was the most radical of all the chapters in the country. 

Leo stated, “Sister Geraldine Johnson, my mentor, my sister and my teacher, was one of the most dynamic women I have ever laid eyes on. When Geraldine gave you your marching orders, you didn’t deviate, you didn’t equivocate, you just did it, even if you didn’t know how.” 

CBTU was one of the key coalition groups in the Bay Area in the anti-apartheid movement. It initiated broader support for the struggle within the ranks of Black labor.

Nelson Mandela thanked the ILWU

In 1990, when Nelson Mandela toured the United States after his release from 27 years in prison, he thanked the ILWU before a mammoth crowd at the Oakland Coliseum.

During the early 1980s, Leo, along with David Stewart and other local members of the CBTU, brought a resolution passed at its convention to Local 10 calling for all international unions to include in their union contracts, making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a paid holiday. Local 10 adopted it as a contract caucus demand for the Longshore Caucus. The Longshore Division gained Dr. King‘s birthday as a paid holiday. 

Leo was a strong believer in rank-and-filers belonging to working-class organizations outside of their local, for the purpose of building coalitions, movements, and solidarity.

Leo Robinson was indeed an internationalist. He and others believed that Black people would not be free in the United States if they were not free in South Africa. They were determined to end support given by the U.S. government that kept the apartheid regime alive. 

Leo knew that workers in both countries had the potential to bring down apartheid. If longshore workers in San Francisco could find a way to support Black workers in South Africa, it would help the liberation movement there survive, win, and change the conditions for Black workers here at home.

Leo was a tremendous speaker. He possessed a commanding presence and voice. When he spoke, he had the full attention of every member of Local 10’s cavernous union hall. 

When he was once asked what the anti-apartheid struggle had to do with workers here at home, Leo responded by explaining that while plants were being shut down here, corporations were investing in industry in South Africa and taking advantage of the subjugation of Black workers under apartheid. He further highlighted that the cargo discharged from the boycotted ship Nedlloyd Kimberly in 1984 contained steel, glass, and apple juice concentrate, all products that had once been produced here in the U.S.

Leo had a way with words to hammer home a point. Here are some that come to mind:

  • “We have permanent interests, not permanent friends.”
  • “If you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.”
  • “They’re not worth two dead flies on a syrup bucket.”
  • “Rank-and-file members should introduce resolutions that say if workers take a cut in wages, the leadership takes a cut in their wages as well.”
  • “The power of the rank-and-file resides in their back pockets.” (wallets)
  • “Only in unity is there strength. You will either organize or you will starve. It is as simple as that.”

Leo was a guy close to the members. They would come to him and express their concerns about matters on the job or in the community. They knew he could facilitate discussion of the issue at the executive board or union meetings. Members trusted his judgment because he believed in what was right as opposed to who was right. 

He was excellent at dominoes and played in the hall on occasions before dispatch. He was also effective in getting members who may have disagreed with his politics to support the efforts he initiated, such as volunteering to stuff and load containers with humanitarian supplies for freedom fighters in Southern Africa.

Leo was cited for heroism when he and two other Longshore workers rescued a fellow worker from sinking in tons of raw sugar. When a longshore brother and his family were being attacked by the KKK in Contra County in the Bay Area in 1981, Leo and others organized the ILWU Civil Rights Committee, which included interfaith, labor, and community forces. Longshore workers provided security for the brother and his family 24/7.

One day, while listening to a progressive radio station, he heard two Black women being interviewed about being harassed by the KKK and other racists in Oroville, California. Leo invited them to speak to the membership. The rank-and-file wanted to give support to their plight. He wrote a resolution to have the next membership meeting in Oroville, a “stop work meeting” with the employers’ approval. 

On the morning of the meeting, members loaded buses and cars to the city and marched through the town’s main thoroughfare to deliver a message to the police chief. Their message was to stop the harassment (cross burning, graffiti, etc.) of the single mothers.

Leo wrote the ILWU position paper on the Israeli-Palestinian question, calling for the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and calling for the establishment of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian governments.

In 1992, Leo and other rank-and-filers organized the African American Longshore Coalition to address racism, sexism, gender, and other forms of discrimination in the ILWU Longshore Division. Its objective was to resolve such problems internally. He believed such issues would ultimately lead to the demise of the union.

In 1994, while Leo was teaching middle school children in Berkeley the history of the ILWU, a former UC professor listened in the audience. They had previously worked together sending books to students in South Africa. The professor sought the union’s help to move his African Studies Library to Tanzania. A total of ten thousand books were sent. Many said, “This is a very unusual act of solidarity.” People from both continents called to find out how that was accomplished.

Call for a Million Worker March

Leo Robinson, in collaboration with Trent Willis and myself (Clarence Thomas of Local 10), wrote the resolution calling for a Million Worker March, an event that took place at the Lincoln Memorial on October 17, 2004, in Washington, D.C. The gathering, which took place a few weeks before the presidential election, faced tremendous opposition from the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO. In fact, the latter instructed all labor councils and state labor federations not to endorse, support, or provide any financial support to the MWM. On June 28, 2004, Marilyn Sneiderman, Director of Field Operations, AFL-CIO, wrote a letter to all of its affiliates stating: “ While we agree with many of the aims and goals of the March, we are not endorsing this mobilization.”

On September 20, 2004, Mike Mathis, Director of the Teamsters’s government affairs, sent a memo to local unions and Joint Council principal officers, reading in part: “We agree, as does the AFL-CIO, in principle, with the idea of the Million Worker March. However, we also believe the timing of the March will divert valuable time and resources away from my efforts in the Battle Ground States.”

A month earlier, at the 29th Annual Educational Conference of the Teamsters National Black Caucus (TNBC) in Orlando, Florida, a motion was made to contribute $10,000 to the MWM. C. Thomas Keegel, General Secretary-Treasurer, IBT, assured TNBC delegates that this would get done, and it was.

Brother Gabriel Prawl, executive board member of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle and the MWM coordinator of the Pacific Northwest, introduced a motion to allow Brother Leo Robinson to address the membership. Prawl was motivated to do this because he was very disappointed at the local’s $500 donation for the MWM. Robinson had a reputation in the Longshore Division for speaking before audiences that did not necessarily share his political views. However, members never doubted his commitment to the ILWU and its rank and file. During Robinson‘s remarks to Local 19, he asserted, “I couldn’t stop the MWM even if I wanted to.“ He made such a compelling case for supporting the MWM that a white member of the local stood and made a motion that the local make a $5,000 contribution to the MWM. The motion passed unanimously!

On the weekend preceding the start of the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat Massachusetts, hosted a mini-Labor summit, which included James P. Hoffa, General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Andy Stern, International President of SEIU, James Spinosa International President of the ILWU, and John Sweeney President of the AFL-CIO. One of the items on the agenda was the MWM. They said the MWM may be a good idea, but not at that time; maybe sometime later.

Brother Robinson contributed $50,000 towards the building of the MWM. He demonstrated his unwavering commitment to making MWM a reality, no matter what lengths the Democratic Party and the labor officialdom went to stop it. His contribution was truly revolutionary. Other pensioners also made significant contributions. I lost two qualifying years of retirement benefits due to my organizing for the MWM in 2004. and the subsequent MWMM in 2005. Leo demonstrated that the power of the rank-and-file resides in their hip pocket, as Harry Bridges (founding President of the ILWU) had pointed out many times.

Leo was also responsible for creating the MWM logo, which is emblazoned on tee-shirts and includes the MWM motto: “Mobilizing in Our Own Name,” with the joining of four hands of different hues, followed by a ribbon, which reads Million Worker March, encapsulates the beliefs and guiding principles of the intent of the MWM.

The MWM was initiated by the Black left of ILWU Local 10. Leo Robinson was the undisputed leader of that tendency in the entire ILWU.

Sister Brenda Stokely, a leading radical African American labor and community activist as well as the coordinator of the MWM Eastern Region, described Brother Leo in this way: “Leo embodied courage and commitment to his class and stood unwaveringly on the side of the aspirations of that class. His skills as an effective working-class strategist and organizer encouraged others never to falter in the face of opposition. He was vigilant in ensuring that ILWU Local 10 maintained its revolutionary character, remained capable of stopping their employers’ attacks on their contracts, and was able to exercise their right to carry out both political and economic strikes. Leo will forever be an inspiring model of revolutionary leadership.”

On March 23, 2013, a memorial service was held for Brother Leo Robinson at the William “Bill” Chester Hiring Hall of Local 10 in San Francisco. He was posthumously awarded the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award and the Nelson Mandela Freedom Award by the South African Ambassador, the Honorable Ebrahim Rasool, and Consul-General, the Honorable Cyril Ndaba respectively.

Submitted by: Clarence Thomas, ILWU Local 10 pensioner. Co-founder of the MWMM and DeClare Publishing. www.MillionWorkerMarch.com

Thomas is the author and co-publisher of “Mobilizing in Our Own Name: Million Worker March” and “Cleophas Williams: My Life Story in the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 10.”

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