Appeal to Negro Seamen and Dockers (1932)

Ralston Crawford, Unloading the Cargo, 1942.

Editorial Introduction

The recent stream of research programs and studies on questions of logistics, critical infrastructure, and global supply and distribution chains has been indispensable to our understanding of contemporary capitalism and its combination of the accelerated, mobile circulation of goods, services, and information with new forms of labor discipline and exploitation. 1 Over the past fifteen years or so, there have been vital inquiries into the geographies of intermodal transport, policies of labor force segmentation and control, and the struggles of shipping, warehouse, and retail workers. 2 This last area is particularly important: the power to block the material structure of capitalist production and circulation, to disrupt it at its “chokepoints” has been a focal point of activist strategies across the international terrain. 3 The port blockade, which has played a role in Palestinian solidarity efforts, the Occupy movement, anti-austerity protests in Greece, and workers’ strikes in Chile – is perhaps the most visible tactic of resistance along these lines.

The significance of longshoremen, harborworkers, and maritime laborers, their capacity to scramble the nerve system of capital-in-motion, is well-known to students of working-class history. These waterfront and ship-bound workers have often been decisive actors in the most bitter, extraordinary, and consequential episodes in the global class struggle. But much of this rich legacy of protest can often be lost in the rapid technological changes and migratory patterns which have completely transformed the spatial and temporal characteristics of labor conditions under “supply chain capitalism.” 4 In the United States, we have well-documented accounts of the Industrial Workers of the World and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s enduring traditions of radical organizing in the interwar period. But scant discussions exist of the short-lived International of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH), which stands as a fascinating initiative towards militant unionism, communist agitation, and multiracial solidarity within transnational maritime networks. 5

The ISH was a Red International of Labour Unions-linked organization, but its activities and social constituency render it distinct among other Comintern groups. 6 Established in 1930 as part of the broader initiative to reach workers of color in the industrial capitalist centers as well as the colonial or semi-colonial territories in both the Atlantic and Pacific, the ISH was constructed to be an umbrella body that would encompass and bring together radical unions and committees of maritime transport workers in which communist militants had a firm foothold. At one point, it boasted chapters in 22 countries and 19 colonies. 7 The French Communist Party, the Communist Party of Germany, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, with their extensive contacts and ties in the ports of Le Havre, Marseille, Hamburg, and Liverpool, respectively, were central levers in this enterprise. The experience of the ISH should hold our interest primarily for its vision of a translative, cross-regional political practice, which merged the formation of small-group cells on merchant ships and “interclubs,” centers for meetings, instruction, and support, in landed ports. As Holger Weiss emphasized in his article on The Negro Worker (the organ utilized in ISH sections as a source of political education and training), Third Period Comintern policy limited activists from developing effective syndicalist approaches; but through efforts like the ISH, questions about how to fight national and racial chauvinism, how to develop appropriate forms of outreach and agitation amongst a heterogeneous labor force, and how to set in motion and solidify circuits of political information and propaganda across the nodes of imperial capitalism were placed on the agenda. 8 As a small but essential part of the international working class, maritime workers held a strategic position in the imaginary and tactical repertoire of anti-imperialism within the labor movement. One can detect the echoes of this earlier phase in a much later conjuncture: at several points in 1973, the Baltimore branch of the African Liberation Support Committee urged longshoremen and dockworkers to refuse to unload shipments of nickel and chrome from Rhodesia, “against their imperialist bosses” profiting from an illegal trade arrangement with a racist régime. The workers walked off the job each time, drawing a concrete line of solidarity. 

The following text is a call to a May 1932 ISH gathering in Hamburg, which details the organization’s aims and tactics, in addition to a survey of the exploitative conditions these workers faced. Notable here is the call to break the racial divisions of the national maritime and dockworkers’ unions and to unite the struggles of the “revolutionary water transport proletariat” in what Lenin would call the “oppressor and oppressed nations” (especially with Africa and the West Indies). The ending also includes the period-specific rhetoric which urged seamen to obstruct and even sabotage shipments of war material, as an act in solidarity with the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, to the Japanese forces during the invasion of Manchuria in 1931-32. 

– Patrick King


Comrades! Oppressed and Exploited Negro Class Brothers!

The International of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH) greets you and appeals to you to organize within the ranks of the revolutionary water transport proletariat to fight against the terrible exploitation and robbery imposed upon you by the capitalists, the shipowners, the lighterage companies, as well as their white and black agents – the headmen, the stevedore-bosses, the foremen and managers. End all other betrayers of the Negro workers and dockers.

I. What is the ISH?

The ISH is the only water transport international which fights for all seamen, stevedores, boatmen and fishermen, irrespective of race, colour or nationality. In order to bring about the greatest unity between the white, black and yellow water transport workers and to establish a united fighting front against the offensive of the capitalists, the I.S.H. will hold a great world congress in the port of Hamburg, beginning on May 20th 1932.

At this congress delegates will come from every capitalist country as well as the colonies, and will draw up a fighting program for the struggle against wage cuts, long hours, bad working conditions, unemployment and starvation, as well as the new imperialist war and intervention against the Soviet Union which has already started in the East.

Because the Negro workers in Africa, England, France, America, and the West Indies are among the worst paid and treated slaves of the shipowners and other capitalists, the ISH., is especially inviting all Negro seamen, dock workers, fishermen and boatmen to elect delegates and to send them to the Congress on May 20th. This, in brief is the program of the ISH. which gives its fullest support and assistance to the Negro seamen, dockers and other water transport workers, wherever they may happen to live.

II. The Seamen are treated like Slaves.

Comrades! We all know of the terrible conditions which are imposed upon the workers at sea and especially upon the sailors and dockers of the coloured races. This régime of enslavement is getting worse from day to day. Unemployment and starvation, that is the fate of many thousands of Negro sailors and dockers who are standing in lines before the docks and registering offices of the shipping companies waiting for a job. And those few who finally succeed to find work are forced to make longer and longer hours for wages which the bosses are cutting down every month.

Comrades! Why have the conditions of the seamen and dockers become so bad? At present, all capitalist countries of Europe and America are undergoing a terrible crisis. This has caused the laying up of many thousands of ships, because there are no cargoes to be transported. And in order to be able to continue distributing great profits to the shareholders and directors, and paying high salaries to the agents and the other officials of the shipping companies, these capitalist robbers are cutting down the wages of the workers and are lowering their standard of life.

III. The Policy of “Divide and Rule.

In order to be able to carry out this policy of worsening the conditions of life of the sailors and dockers, the employers, and their agents, the reactionary trade union leaders of America, England and France, are fostering race hatred among the white sailors and dockers against their coloured class brothers. In this way the Negro workers become the victims of the worst forms of discrimination; the bosses give them the heaviest and dirtiest work, and pay them lower wages than to the white workers. The Negro sailors are put in the most dirtiest and overcrowded parts of the ships. They are being given the worst food and they are forced to work under the most terrible conditions.

The International of Seamen and Harbour Workers also calls upon all white workers, who are conscious of their duty to their class brothers, to join hands with their coloured brothers in America and in the colonies and together with them fight against the policy of “divide and rule” of the bosses; fight against unemployment, against wage cuts and the lengthening of working hours. Only the united front of all seamen and dockers irrespective of colour, nationality or race, can improve the living conditions of the working class.

IV. Betrayal of the Reformist Leaders in America.

The Negro dockers in America are in the disadvantage as far as their jobs are concerned in the most unjust manner„ and they are ordinarily receiving lower wages than those given to the white workers. The recent long and bitter strike of the dockers in New Orleans against a wage cut of 15 cents (the great majority of the strikers were Negroes) has been completely betrayed by the treacherous leaders of the International Longshoremen Association”, who forced the strikers back to work.

The reactionary trade unions of the American Federation of Labour which are controlled by the worst bureaucrats, refuse to accept Negroes in their ranks and when compelled to do so they organize them in separate local groups, with the object of selling them to the bosses and using them as strike breakers against the white workers. This is especially true for the International Union of Sailors in America and the International Longshoremen Association.

V. Africa and the West Indies

The conditions imposed upon the Negro seamen and dockers in Africa and the West Indies are yet worse than in America. They are being robbed and exploited by the shipping companies and the European imperialist exploiters in the most brutal fashion. For instance, the companies of Elder-Dempster, John Holt, United Airica, Woermann as well as the American, Dutch and French companies in West Africa are not only paying to the native sailors and dockers in Dakar, Bathurst, Freetown, Monrovia, Gold Coast, Nigeria, Cape Town, Durban etc. the miserable pay of 9d to 1/- sh. per day, but the officers and headmen are forcing them to work like slaves, any time they like – 15 to 20 hours a day. The men are even forced to remain on board and to work after their shift is finished. When the workers protest and try to organize they are ill treated by the officers, the foremen and headmen who beat them up and stop their pay.

The same situation also prevails in Kingston, Jamaica; in Port of Spain, Trinidad; in Georgetown, British Guiana; Bridgetown, Barbados; as well as in Haiti, Panama and the other ports of the West Indies and South America.

At the very moment when the workers are confronted with all these brutal acts of oppression, the leaders of the reformist unions have turned their backs to the Negro workers and are openly helping the imperialists to press their yoke tighter and tighter round the neck of the colonial Negroes.

For instance, the reformist leaders of Sailors’ Union of France declare about the colonial workers: “We refuse to regard the natives from the colonies as French citizens who have the right to work on French ships.”

And in the same way the English National Seamen’s Union, which is under the leadership of the worst fakers, is carrying on a most shameless propaganda of lies and slanders in its journal, “The Seaman” against the coloured seamen on board of British vessels and in the ports of London, Liverpool, Cardiff, South Wales, Bristol. The leaders of this Negro-baiting Union are just out to create trouble in the English ports by inciting the white sailors against the Negro sailors, and in general, to chase all coloured seamen off British ships.

Instead of propagating the solidarity of the white and coloured workers, these reformist bootlickers of the shipowners are helping the capitalists to split up the ranks of the seamen and dockers. They are the very ones calling upon the governments to drive the coloured workers out of Europe – back to the colonies.

VI. Negro Workers! Join the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement!

Negro seamen and dockers! Only the revolutionary ISH and its affiliated sections like the Marine Workers Industrial Union in America, the Seamen’s Minority Movement in England, the CGTU in France, the African Federation of Trade Unions in South Africa, and the International Seamen’s Clubs, which are supporting the program of the INTERNATIONAL TRADE UNION COMMITTEE OF NEGRO WORKERS admit the coloured water transport workers and dockers into their ranks on the basis of complete economic, social and political equality. It is for that reason that we are urging upon all Negro and coloured seamen and harbour workers to join the revolutionary trade union movement as well as the ship- and dock-committees which are under the leadership of the ISH, and to fight shoulder to shoulder with their class conscious white brothers for better working conditions.

Comrades, we have had an excellent example before us. The sailors of the British Navy at Invergordon who are after all better paid than the coloured seamen, organized and won a fight against wage cuts. It is only by organizing ourselves and fighting that we can march towards victory over capitalism which is the common enemy of all workers. It is only within the ranks of the revolutionary trade union movement that the masses of Negro slaves will be able to throw off the yoke imposed on them by the American, English, French, and Belgian Imperialists and other imperialist robbers and to gain their national freedom and social emancipation side by side with the oppressed Chinese and Indian workers.

VII. Comrades and oppressed and exploited black brothers!

Before concluding, some words of warning! In the degree in which the world economic crisis is sharpening, the imperialist powers, especially America, England, France, Belgium, understand that the only way out of their difficulties for them is to further worsen the condition of the workers and to prepare for war in order to re-divide up China, Africa and the other colonial countries. And at the same time all these robber states are planning a combined attack against the Soviet Union, the only country ruled by the working class, the only country which is constructing a new socialist régime, free from exploitation, oppression, race hatred and unemployment. When this war will break out (and already the Japanese imperialists are conducting the war in China, with the aid of the English, American, French and Belgian imperialists) than the war-mongers and trade union misleaders who are today cutting down your wages and are throwing you on the street to starve will call upon you to fight for them, to help in the transportation of soldiers, to load and unload ammunition and arms destined to massacre your class brothers in the East. Comrades! You must refuse to make yourself the agents of the imperialist murderers of these capitalist slave traders; you must follow the example of the Russian workers who, in 1917, transformed! the war of “their” capitalist class into the civil war, and have taken the power in their hands.

VIII. Negro Seamen and Dockers, Wake Up!

Let us unite and fight:

  1. Against discrimination of Negroes, fostered by the war mongers and capitalists with the aid of their reactionary trade union agents and spies.

  2. For equal pay for all workers, irrespective of race, colour, or nationality.

  3. For benefit for all unemployed seamen and dockers, at the expense of the government and the capitalist companies.

  4.  Join the ranks of the Minority Movement of the English sailors, the Marine Workers Industrial Union in America and the CGTU in France!

  5. Organize revolutionary ship and dock groups!

  6. Join the ship and dock committees of the International Seamen and Harbour Workers Union which are fighting for the following demands on behalf of the Negro seamen and the sailors of other races and colours;

a) Equal pay for equal work for colonial and white sailors.

b) Increase of the wages of the seamen and dockers from the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

c) Three shift system for the men on deck and 4 shifts for the men under deck; seven hours’ day during the watch.

d) One free day on shore for every Sunday spent on the journey.

e) Social insurance at the expense of the capitalists and the State.

f) Unemployment benefit; free food, clothes, shelter for the unemployed.

g) Double pay for overtime work.

h) Against the system of robbery through “dashes” and “pay offs” to headmen, boss stevedores.

i) Equal rights for colonial and white seamen in signing on; and registering at the employment office; down with the PC5 in England, 9

j) For the right to organize and the freedom of meeting and speech; against the arrest and deportation of foreign born seamen,

k) For the complete freedom to go ashore on foreign ports.

l) For the fight against reactionary legislation for seamen and their trade unions!

Negro workers, defend the Soviet Union which is the fatherland of the working class! Hands off China!

All delegates to Hamburg on May 20th!

This text originally appeared as “Appeal to the Negro Seamen and Dockers!” The Negro Worker 2, no. 4 (April 1932): 20–24, and was featured in the section of the journal titled, “The Labour Movement.”

References   [ + ]

1. For some highlights, see the excellent “Supply Studies Syllabus.”
2. See Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), and her 2014 article in Viewpoint, “Disrupting Distribution: Subversion, the Social Factory, and the ‘State’ of Supply Chains”; Beth Gutelius, “Disarticulating Distribution: Labor Segmentation and Subcontracting in Global Logistics,” Geoforum 60 (March 2015): 53–61; Anna Curcio, “Practicing militant inquiry: Composition, strike and betting in the logistics workers struggles in Italy,” ephemera journal 14.3 (August 2014).
3. For a fine overview, see Charmaine Chua, Logistics, Capitalist Circulation, Chokepoints,” The Disorder of Things, September 9, 2014.
4. See Anna Tsing, “Supply Chains and the Human Condition,” Rethinking Marxism 21 (2009) 148-176; for an ethnographic approach to the contemporary shipping industry, see Steven C. McKay, “Racializing the High Seas: Filipino Migrants and Global Shipping,” in The Nation and Its Peoples: Citizens, Denizens, Migrants, ed. John Park and Shannon Gleeson (London: Routledge, 2014).
5. On the IWW’s organizing among port and harbor workers as well as sailors, see Peter Cole, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2007); on the ILWU, see Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Union in the 1930s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). For another perspective on the racial composition of seafarers, see Gerald Horne, Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica (New York: NYU Press, 2005). For a classic, withering Trotskyist criticism of the Comintern’s engagement with maritime workers in the U.S. from a member of the Socialist Workers Party, see Art Preis, Stalinists on the Waterfront: A Documented Record of Betrayal (Pioneer Publishers, 1947).
6. For historical surveys of the ISH, see Constance Margain, “The International Union of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH) 1930-1937: Interclubs and Transnational Aspects,” Twentieth Century Communism, 8.8 (January 2015): 133-144; and Holger Weiss, “The International of Seamen and Harbour Workers – A Radical Global Labour Union of the Waterfront or a Subversive World-Wide Web?,” International Communism and Transnational Solidarity: Radical Networks, Mass Movements and Global Politics, 1919–1939 (Leiden: Brill 2016), 256-317. For more specific discussions, see Josephine Fowler, “From East to West and West to East: Ties of Solidarity in the Pan-Pacific Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, 1923–1934,” International Labor and Working-Class History 66 (Fall 2004): 99-117; Marika Sherwood, “The Comintern, The CPGB,. Colonies and Black Britons, 1920-1938.” Science & Society 60.2 (Summer 1996): 137-63; Hakim Adi, “The Comintern and Black Workers in Britain and France, 1919-37, Immigrants & Minorities 28.2/3 (July/November 2010): 224-45; Diane Frost, “Racism, Work, and Unemployment: West African Seamen in Liverpool, 1880s-1960s,” in Ethnic Labour and British Imperial Trade: A History of Ethnic Seafarers in the UK, ed. Diane Frost (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 22-33); Vernon L. Pederson, “George Mink, the Maritime Workers’ Industrial Union, and the Comintern in America,“Labor History 41.3 (2000): 307-20).
7. Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 339.
8. For more on this political labor of translation, see Constance Margain, “L’Internationale des gens de la mer (1930-1937). Activités, parcours militants et résistance au nazisme d’un syndicat communiste de marins et dockers,” PhD thesis, Potsdam and Le Havre University, 2015.
9. Editor’s Note: A registration form required by the National Union of Seamen in England (at bottom a company union of the British Shipping Federation), which enabled union and the employers to exercise tight control over the labor force, requiring a substantial fee and card be signed by both the Shipping Federation and the union before one could find work on a ship. See Tom Vickers, “Migration, Political Engagement, and the State: A Case Study of Immigrants and Communists in 1930s Tyneside in the UK,” in Reconfiguring Citizenship: Social Exclusion and Diversity Within Inclusive Citizenship Practices, eds. Lena Dominelli and Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha (London: Routledge, 2014), 58.

Author of the article

(ISH) was a transnational organization, tied to the Communist International, which sought to coordinate the trade union efforts of black maritime workers in Europe, the United States, Africa, and the West Indies during the early 1930s.