Labor History Seminar Synposium: Peter Cole, Western Illinois University and Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University | Newberry

Labor History Seminar Synposium: Peter Cole, Western Illinois University and Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

Saturday, February 2, 2013

11 am to 3 pm


Towner Fellow’s Lounge

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Labor History Seminar

“From the Hook to the Box: How Longshore Unions in the San Francisco Bay Area and Durban Survived the Container”
Peter Cole, Western Illinois University

Introducing new technologies often crush unions; however, longshore unions in the San Francisco Bay area and Durban, South Africa demonstrate that need not occur.  On America’s Pacific coast, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union signed a landmark agreement on containerization in 1960, but tremendous controversy in the union culminated in the industry’s longest strike ever in 1971.  More chaotic in Durban, and amidst apartheid’s final throes, containers caused similar shockwaves.  Though workforce numbers plummeted, those remaining thrived and maintain power at a strategic point of the global economy.  Comparing two ports—halfway across the world—counters the typical narrative that technology and globalization always destroy unions.

“Trying to Tame the Shop Floor: Black Workers, Employers, and the State in South Africa, 1977-1985”
Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

This paper examines the complex process that led to the recognition of black trade unions under apartheid.  Until 1980, African workers in South Africa lay outside that nation’s corporatist structures of industrial relations. In the late 1970s however, the apartheid state began to incorporate blacks into state-sanctioned collective bargaining structures. This paper explores the contending interests of white unions eager to protect their turf; employers hoping to tame a restive black working class; the state, which sought to split the emergent black trade unions from the liberation movement; and, not least, black workers seeking to expand the shop-floor power they had seized in a series of strikes and with their new organizations. It concludes that despite the efforts to tame the new black unions and to curb their shop-floor power, the powerful syndicalist current of the 1970s carried over into the anti-apartheid trade union movement of the 1980s. As a result, black workers became central to the birth of democracy in South Africa.

Commentators: Prexy Nesbitt, Columbia College Chicago; Kathryn Oberdeck, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; James Thwinda, Chicago ACTS

Cost and Registration Information 

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, e-mail the Scholl Center at  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.

Please note that this session will run from 11 am to 3 pm on a Saturday.