Workers Vanguard No. 1100
18 November 2016
In Honor of a Revolutionary Labor Militant
Stan Gow, a lifelong socialist and trade-union activist, co-founder and editor of Longshore Militant and member of the executive board of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) from 1974 to 1986, died in July at the age of 88. Stan had been a supporter of the Spartacist tendency from its inception. Though we had lost touch with him in the last decades of his life, when he also suffered the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, we mourn his passing and honor his contributions to our movement and to the ILWU. He was an exemplar of a revolutionary socialist working-class militant.
Comrades who knew Stan well overwhelmingly described him as patient, gentle, solid. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with an unassuming, aw-shucks demeanor that masked a keen intelligence. After a hard upbringing in coastal Maine, he joined the Air Force shortly after WWII. Later, he attended UC Berkeley on the GI Bill, receiving a degree in biochemistry. It was at Berkeley at the height of the McCarthy witchhunt that Stan was won to Marxism, defying the stultifying conformity and pervasive anti-communism of that era. Initially a supporter of Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (ISL), he was part of the left wing, centered in the ISL’s student-youth group, which opposed the organization’s rightward trajectory and eventual liquidation into the American Socialist Party in 1957. Rejecting Shachtman’s anti-Sovietism, this left wing came over to the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). As the SWP politically degenerated in the early 1960s, Stan went on to support the politics of the Revolutionary Tendency which, expelled from the SWP in 1963, went on to found the Spartacist League.
After receiving his degree, Stan got a job as a chemist in the C&H Sugar refinery in Crockett, on the northern San Francisco Bay. He hated the smug white-collar managers who were his co-workers and he jumped at the chance to join the ILWU in 1959. Stan told comrades how much happier he was to occasionally work at C&H as a longshoreman, unloading the sugar boats. He maintained his interest in science and, with the ability to explain complicated concepts (whether scientific or political) in simple language, he was a powerful educator. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he would incline his head, squint slightly and speak firmly. Making good use of his chemical knowledge, Stan became known for his attention to on-the-job safety, especially regarding the dangerous materials longshoremen often had to handle.
Stan campaigned against U.S. imperialism’s dirty war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants and called for the labor movement to take up the fight for black rights. In an open letter to Bay Area longshoremen, Stan took the ILWU’s Dispatcher to task for its blanket condemnation of “violence”—equating police repression with the protest actions of black and Latino youth. Stan argued that systematic cop violence was at the root of the ghetto rebellions then sweeping the nation. He concluded:
“Both the economically exploited working-class and the oppressed color minorities must join together to form a new political party responsive to the needs of both and opposed to the policies of their exploiters, the capitalist class. We don’t need a Peace party, or a Civil Rights Party, or an expanded Poverty Program Party, or even any combination of these, but a party that starts with a drive for the centers of power in our economic-political structure.”
Distributed as a leaflet on the waterfront, Stan’s letter was reprinted in Spartacist (No. 11, March-April 1968) under the headline “How Does Violence Start?” The fight to break the labor movement from its abject prostration to the capitalist Democratic Party and take up the fight for black liberation and a revolutionary workers party was at the center of Stan’s work in the ILWU. He was one of the editors of Workers’ Action, an early and trial effort of Bay Area Spartacist supporters to address the working class. (The journal was later transferred to New York and subsequently incorporated into Workers Vanguard.) One comrade recalled that Stan revealed himself as a firebrand during the 1969 Berkeley People’s Park protests, grabbing the crowd’s attention as he roared out over the bullhorn the need for the students to link up with the power of the working class.
Stan entered the longshore workforce as containerization was just being introduced. He was one of the first “B-men,” a new category established by the Harry Bridges leadership. Having no union rights or benefits, B-men only worked during peak periods when all the A-men who wanted to work had been dispatched. This provision was central to the 1961 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement (M&M), which allowed the shippers of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) to slash jobs and working conditions while supposedly insuring a guaranteed income to remaining longshoremen (PGP or Pay Guarantee Plan). As work became scarcer over the following two decades, many B-men—unable to get much work and given only paltry PGP—were forced to leave the industry. Others were deregistered (lost their right to work as longshoremen) for minor infractions.
Stan was one of those who made it to A status. But he never ceased to see the second-class B category as a threat to the union and the hiring hall, where union dispatchers equalize work opportunity by distributing jobs on the basis of rotating lists of available longshoremen. He firmly opposed the lawsuit filed against the union by some of the deregistered men, organized by Stan Weir, a former ISL comrade of his. The suit, which threatened ILWU Local 10 with financial ruin, wound its way through the courts for 17 years and was eventually thrown out. Opposition in principle to bringing the capitalist courts into the affairs of the union movement was a central plank in the program on which Stan and fellow Local 10 member Howard Keylor ran for office in 1974. So too was the demand, “Full A status for B-men, now” as well as the call to abolish the “steady man” provision which Bridges forced through in the second M&M contract in 1966 (allowing heavy equipment operators to work directly for individual PMA companies as opposed to being dispatched out of the hiring hall).
These demands were touchstones of the program of Longshore Militant, which grew out of Gow and Keylor’s joint fight against the 1975 contract—yet another link in Bridges’ long chain of M&M betrayals. Longshore jobs coastwide had been cut by two-thirds, with the Bay Area hit particularly hard as container work migrated to the bigger ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. While the shippers were tripling their tonnage and raking in profits, A-men in San Francisco counted themselves lucky to work three days a week. Their supposed guaranteed income was continually cut back, and the proposed contract allowed an arbitrator to cancel it as punishment for any “unauthorized” work stoppage. The ILWU membership rejected this sellout twice, and Bridges only forced it through on the third vote because many despaired of him negotiating anything better.
Longshore Militant was the only opposition grouping to call for ousting the discredited Bridges bureaucracy by building elected strike committees. Such committees were needed to run a solid coastwide strike to abolish the steady man clause and fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay in order to spread the available work among all longshoremen. Over the next decade, Longshore Militant continued to counterpose this class-struggle perspective to the M&M contracts brokered by Bridges and his heirs. Gow and Keylor were repeatedly re-elected to the Local 10 executive board, running on a platform that called for a revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government. Stan was elected as a Local 10 delegate to ILWU conventions in 1979 and 1983.
Longshore Militant published some 70 issues between 1975 and 1986 and worked in solidarity with the Militant Caucus of ILWU Local 6, which published Warehouse Militant. The warehouse division was also hemorrhaging jobs as the distributors fled to low-wage Nevada. Both the Militant Caucus and Longshore Militant fought for an aggressive campaign to follow the runaway houses and organize the unorganized. Arrested with several other militants on a Local 6 picket line during the 1976 warehouse strike, Stan was slapped with the all-purpose charge of assaulting a police officer. The charges were later reduced and Stan received a 30-day suspended sentence. He gave a minority report on warehouse to the union’s 1979 convention.
The Fight for Genuine Labor Solidarity
In the ILWU, the influence of the Stalinist Communist Party (CP)—an early and uncritical backer of Harry Bridges—remained strong into the 1990s. Anyone familiar with the union’s history knows that its leadership’s rhetoric of labor solidarity was most often belied by inaction and abject class collaboration in practice. Stan was known above all else for his persistent fight to marshal the ILWU’s significant social power not just in words, but in solidarity action.
Over the years he fought for hot-cargoing military goods to the bloody Pinochet regime in Chile; for honoring picket lines set up at West Coast ports during strikes by the East and Gulf Coast International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA); for a 24-hour work stoppage in defense of the 1978 U.S. coal miners strike; and for a solidarity strike to defend the PATCO air traffic controllers union against President Ronald Reagan’s union-busting in 1981. The criminal refusal of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy to use its power to shut down the airports in defense of PATCO was a watershed, opening up a series of labor defeats, which went along with Reagan’s renewed Cold War offensive against the Soviet Union. It was at this time that Keylor cowardly deserted Longshore Militant and the Militant Caucus which had recently been formed in Local 10.
Stan continued the fight. In 1983, when Reagan announced a major military escalation of his dirty war to prop up the military junta in El Salvador, Stan initiated the call (signed by 23 other ILWUers) for a 24-hour port shutdown. The call was so popular that the Local 10 executive board was forced to recommend it to the ILWU convention, where International President Jimmy Herman (who had taken the reins when Bridges retired in 1977) did a full-court press to squash it. With protests over El Salvador filling the mall in Washington, D.C., Stan and his supporters tried to spark union action by picketing an El Salvador-bound ship. The Local 10 leadership ordered ILWU longshoremen to work the ship, then brought Stan up on charges of “conduct unbecoming a union member” in June 1983. The Local 10 trial committee, which refused to hear most of Stan’s witnesses, delivered a guilty verdict. But it was overturned at the membership meeting, as angry members turned out by the hundreds to shout, “No! No! No!” The attempt to muzzle Stan was defeated by a ten-to-one margin.
Two days before his sham trial, Stan and other union members had attempted to stop the loading of the Nedlloyd Kimberley, bound for South Africa, in protest against the execution of three anti-apartheid fighters. Once again, the Local 10 leadership ordered longshoremen to cross the picket line and work the ship. But they didn’t dare bring Stan up on charges for this action, understanding that the largely black membership of Local 10 strongly identified with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Longshore Militant had been fighting to put teeth in the bureaucracy’s empty anti-apartheid resolutions since 1976. In the fall of 1984, with tens of thousands of black workers in South Africa on strike and anti-apartheid struggle exploding, Stan again issued urgent calls for Local 10 to boycott all ships to and from South Africa. He had been severely injured in an on-the-job accident the previous June, requiring several operations and years of recuperation during which he was unable to work. But that didn’t stop him. The bureaucrats at the head of Local 10 were feeling the heat, and when the Nedlloyd Kimberley docked at Pier 80 in late November they undertook a one-shot action, with a policy to work the ship but not the South African cargo.
Stan was there, fighting to throw the full weight of the ILWU behind the action. But the Local 10 leaders (with the active assistance of Howard Keylor and CP supporter Leo Robinson) refused to give official union sanction even for this token action. Longshoremen were left to go it alone, dispatched to the ship where they refused to work South African cargo and were fired for the day. In the guise of protecting the union from sanctions by the PMA and the courts for an “illegal” work stoppage, the bureaucrats purveyed the fiction that the ILWU members implementing the boycott were carrying out individual “acts of conscience.” But, as Stan pointed out, “Maybe we’re not real smart. We thought it was the job of the union to protect its members, not the members’ job to protect Herman’s cozy relationship with the PMA.” (For the full story, see “The Truth About the Nedlloyd Kimberley Boycott,” WV No. 873, 7 July 2006.)
The spineless attempt to “hide” this union action didn’t fool anyone—least of all the PMA and the capitalist courts, which slapped the union with an injunction. The ILWU leadership immediately caved in, calling off the boycott after ten days. Even this token use of union power won the ILWU international acclaim. How much more powerful if Stan’s program had won and the union had boycotted all South Africa-bound ships, defying court injunctions and Taft-Hartley threats—an action with the potential to strike a blow against hated anti-labor laws and galvanize similar actions by unions around the world.
Stan’s injuries were debilitating, and when he came back to the job he transferred to clerks Local 34, from which he eventually retired. In one of his last actions in Local 10, in April 1986, he presented the following motion calling on the Local’s executive board to protest Reagan’s terror bombing of Libya:
“ILWU Local 10 supports the cause of Libyan independence and territorial integrity against assaults by U.S. imperialism. We condemn U.S. imperialism’s policy of anti-Soviet provocation and its act of aggression, criminal assassination and mass terror against Libya.”
The motion passed, punching a hole in the anti-Soviet stance which the ILWU had taken under Jimmy Herman, who sought to line the union up behind U.S. imperialism’s renewed Cold War drive in the early 1980s. This was a sharp break with the ILWU’s pro-Moscow Stalinist stance under Harry Bridges. The CPers in the union hadn’t raised a peep when Herman threw the ILWU behind the U.S.-backed mullahs in Afghanistan and hailed Polish Solidarność, the reactionary movement that eventually led the capitalist counterrevolution in Poland. It was left to Longshore Militant to explain that it was in the interests of the working class to militarily defend the Soviet Union and the other states in which capitalism had been overthrown, despite their treacherous Stalinist misrulers. Stan had been won to defense of the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution when he quit Shachtman’s ISL as a young man. He well understood that those who refuse to defend the past gains of the working class will never win new ones.
Stan can have no better epitaph than the one Longshore Militant published to draw the lessons of the sabotage of the Nedlloyd Kimberley boycott:
“For a long time, Stan Gow has been arguing that there are two counterposed political programs at work in the ILWU and other unions. Stan and the Militant Caucus have fought for the program of militant class struggle and political action independent of the capitalist parties, courts and government. This program is based on the fact that the bosses own the government, and together they are the enemies of working people and always will be until the working people take over society. The other program, represented by the International officers and the revolving door of Local 10 ‘leaders’, is class collaboration, a legalistic strategy that says there is a partnership between labor and the bosses, and that the government can be pressured to be a friend of the working man—as long as we obey its laws. This is a lie.”
After decades of defeats with labor misleaders bowing and scraping before the capitalists’ anti-labor laws, insisting that the election of some Democratic “friend of labor” is the only possible road forward, many union activists today despair of anything else even being possible. Stan Gow and his Longshore Militant fought for a different path. His life is rich with lessons that can and will be carried forward by a new generation of labor militants.