Clarence Thomas, Oakland native and labor activist, speaks at a Juneteenth rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in 2020. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Clarence Thomas, 74, spent the majority of his life working as longshoreman, loading and unloading ships docked at the Port of San Francisco. He comes from a long line of longshore workers who were members of Local IWLU local 10, an influential union based in San Francisco. Retired since 2015, Thomas recently edited and published his first book, “Mobilizing in our own name: Million Worker March,” which documents decades of ILWU-backed protests, written by the activists and workers behind the actions.

The Oaklandside spoke with Thomas recently about his family’s history in Oakland and the legacy of Black labor organizing in the Bay Area. Thomas will also be speaking on Saturday, July 10 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Laborfest, ILWU Hall on 400 N. Point Street in San Francisco.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your family’s history. 

I come from an African American working class family. My paternal grandparents and father came to California in 1936. They resided in West Oakland, which was predominantly Italian and Portuguese at the time. My mom and my maternal grandmother migrated to Oakland in 1943. My grandfather came to work in the shipyard because victory ships (military cargo ships) were being built for World War II and people from all over the country were coming to work in the shipyards. 

In the case of African Americans, it was to get away from the Jim Crow south. In the case of others, it was an opportunity for women to go to work as what they call “Rosie the Riveter,” being welders and reviters working at the shipyard.

My parents were very civically engaged. They went to see Senator John F. Kennedy speak at DeFremery Park when he was running for president in 1960. During the late sixties, my parents allowed Black Panther party community meetings to be held in their homes. Growing up around longshore workers, I was introduced to Black men who were part of one of the strongest unions in the country that allowed them to have decent wages, democracy on the job, but more importantly, the ability to buy homes and cars and have disposable income. 

The longshore workers in the Bay Area represented the foundation of the black middle-class from the working class perspective. What I mean by that is these were people who worked with their hands and were able to make a living and provide an education for their children without having a college education.

Why did you decide to become a longshore worker? 

Well when you grow up as a kid, there’s things you notice. I noticed the people around me were able to take vacations, they had disposable income. It was not at all unusual for longshore workers, even going back to the 1950’s, to be major contributors to their church. 

My father didn’t become a longshore worker until 1963, before that he worked at the post office. One of the things that he realized is that longshore jobs provided not only better wages but also provided workers a degree of freedom. 

This is because longshore work depends on whether or not there are ships that are in the port, which determines whether or not you get paid when you work. However, you’re not under any obligation to work every day. If in fact, you want to take off, there’s a possibility that you could work another shift. I recognized that as a child and knew that this was a very coveted job. 

You have probably read about actions that have been taken by longshore workers such as  what happened in 1984 when longshore workers refused to unload cargo from a vessel by the name of the Nedlloyd Kimberly that was carrying South African cargo. We did not unload that cargo for 11 days. This is an example of how much power longshore workers have on the job because they can determine whether a work situation is safe or unsafe on the job. We don’t have to wait for supervision to be able to make that determination. We can make that determination ourselves.

In your book, you describe a number of actions such as the Block the Boat campaign, the Juneteenth 2020 waterfront rally, and the movement against South African apartheid. What do you think makes Oakland workers, particularly Black workers, such a strong political and organizing force? 

In 1934, there was a major west coast waterfront strike that took place and it shut down the entire west coast. During that 1934 strike, Black people were excluded from unions. There were probably less than 100 members of the ILA— the union that ILWU Local 10 transitioned from—and one of the problems is that the shipping companies would hire African Americans to break those strikes. They knew Black people did not have an opportunity to work on the waterfront unless there was a strike. 

Longshore worker union leaders like Harry Bridges and other radicals who led the 1934 San Francisco strike understood the intersectionality between race and class. They made an appeal to the Black community through the Black church and C.L Dellums, who believed all men had a right to join the union, including African Americans. This was a bold move but it demonstrated that Black lives mattered and made others realize they could not have won that strike without the support of the Black community.

In my book, I quote C.L Dellums—who was Ron Dellums’ uncle and vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters— who had initially come to the Bay Area in order to go to law school. He said there were three opportunities for Black men to make money when he arrived in Oakland during the 1920’s. He said they could work on trains, on ships, or do something illegal. I thought that was an interesting observation based on the opportunities there were for African-Americans in the Bay Area during that time. 

So, the ILA union leaders made a proposal to the Black community, and that proposal was that if they stood by the longshore workers who were on strike, they would work to make sure that African Americans would be hired on the waterfront. This led to the proliferation of African Americans being hired on the waterfront during WWII, and when that happened, the waterfront changed forever. Black people who migrated from Texas and other parts of the south came to the Bay Area, and some of them had experience as longshore workers in the south but were part of segregated unions back home. 

And where did those long show workers live? They worked in San Francisco but they lived in Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland and brought those union traditions and activism to their communities.

“Mobilizing In Our Name: Million Worker March” book by Clarence Thomas. Amir Aziz

You dedicated this book to your late father, Clarence Thomas, Sr., who was also a member of ILWU Local 10. How did your father influence your own organizing work?

Before my father was hired on the waterfront, he worked for the post office in Oakland. He filed a discrimination suit against his supervisor, And I have to say that with a degree of sadness, my father had to do the same thing once he became a longshore worker. There was some discrimination going on against Black longshore workers in ILWU Local 10 as it pertained to them being able to transfer, which was really a promotion to Local 34, which is the clerks union. There was a time when African Americans  were a very small part of Local 34, so my father was part of a class of longshore workers who stood up and challenged that. 

Now, interestingly enough, my father lost the lawsuit, but you know what happened? All members came together to decide on another way in which these promotions would be handled. As a result of that challenge, they made it possible for Black workers who wanted to become clerks to get those jobs. That’s the kind of fellow he was.

You have these deep Oakland roots but you worked as a longshore worker in San Francisco and for a San Francisco based union, so how did you balance working as a longshore worker across the Bay while continuing to support worker movements in your hometown?

We all live someplace as workers. There was a time when many of us lived in Oakland. Now we’re in Brentwood, Antioch,and various other places, But the majority of us lived close to where we work and we’re engaged in local political and civic activity. The point is that there are specific doctrines within ILWU Local 10 that encourage civic engagement, to establish contact and relations with other workers around the world. 

Another thing that our union believes in is that workers should be able to establish contact and relations with other workers around the world. That is the reason why I have been part of international worker delegations to go to Baghdad in 2003 to meet firsthand with the Iraqi trade unionists to find out how their lives were being impacted during the U.S. occupation. I’ve met with dock workers from Latin America and longshore workers in Cuba and Japan.

In most instances, I paid for the majority of these visits out of pocket because it’s important for workers to be able to have contacts with one another and especially in our industry because we have the same employers around the world. Whether you’re in Durban, South Africa or in Oakland, California, we have some of the same employers.

Part of your book focuses on the Million Worker March, a national movement that culminated in a rally in Washington D.C. How was Black organizing power from Oakland particularly instrumental in making this protest a reality?

The idea of the Million Worker March started in my living room. That was in January of 2004. I got a phone call from Trent Willis, who is now the president of ILWU Local 10. He called me and wanted to get my thoughts about starting a Million Worker March. I had been to the Million Man March in 2004 and I witnessed the grandeur and the massive organizational process that went into making that a reality. People like Trent Willis, Leo Robinson, Henry Graham, and myself laid out the plan. 

The appeal of the Million Worker March reminded me of James Brown’s song, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” When that record came out in 1967, it had an appeal to the Black community all over the country. The Million Worker March had the same kind of appeal to working people because all workers would support those demands. Even if you are a Republican, you believe in pensions. You believe in affordable housing, you believe in being able to send your children to college, you believe in a right to a living wage. The reason why I know that is because when we put these demands together, we did so hoping to appeal to workers no matter what their political ideology was.

When we look at these demands that we put out in 2004, they are just as relevant now as they were back then. In fact, even more so.

The Oscar Grant action where we shut down all the ports in the Bay Area, that was organized by the folks who organized the Million Worker March. There are so many struggles documented in this book that were initiated by the same people who organized that march. 

Cranes at Howard Terminal in the Port of Oakland, where the Oakland A’s are hoping to construct a new ballpark. Amir Aziz Credit: Amir Aziz

You’re retired, but you’re still heavily involved in ILWU Local 10 and advocating for workers in Oakland and beyond. What keeps you going? 

I’m retired from the waterfront, but not from the struggle. I can remember being taken to the auditorium at what they call the Kaiser center now, in December of 1962 on the hundredth anniversary [the anniversary fell on 1963] of the signing of the emancipation proclamation. I can remember very vividly, my maternal and paternal grandfathers, my father and I all went to go hear Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech.

I can remember the impact of what the Black Panther party meant to the Black community, which provided the opportunity for Lionel Wilson to be elected the first Black mayor of this city. I remember the impact of the breakfast for children program in the city of Oakland.

I remember what it meant to my mother and father who moved from West Oakland and bought a home in north Oakland in 1956 during white flight, when whites were moving to Concord, Castro valley, San Leandro, and leaving the flatlands. Now when I look at North Oakland, it is returning to what it was before my parents bought a home there in 1956.

I care about the city of Oakland and my children who grew up here. ILWU Local 10 and I are opposed to the building of a baseball park, 3,000 condominiums, a 400 room hotel, and 1.9 million square feet of commercial and retail space at Howard Terminal, one of the busiest ports on the west coast. We believe that the port is the economic engine for all of Northern California; a baseball park and hotels do not belong there.

Whichever way this ballpark project goes, when my grandchildren or my grand nieces and nephews asked me, “Pop-pop, or uncle, what did you do,” I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them. I think it’s important for members of my family and others to understand the importance of being civically engaged.

That’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I want them to learn from the struggles that I’ve been engaged in.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.