Friday Jul 19

BOOK REVIEW: On the Docks with Herb Mills

Review of Presente: A Dockworker Story (Brooklyn: Hard Ball Press, 2023).


Herb Mills, the author of Presente: A Dockworker Story, was a longtime member and officer of ILWU Local 10, the longshore local for the San Francisco Bay area. The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) has always stood on the Left of the US labor movement and has always had a strong commitment to social justice, both in the US and elsewhere in the world. One of the ILWU's Ten Guiding Principles states, in part, "Workers are workers the world over," and the ILWU has acted on that principle. In 1936, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, ILWU members refused to load scrap iron for Italy. Two years later, when Japan had invaded China, ILWU members refused to load scrap iron to Japan. In 1978, ILWU members refused to load munitions for the Pinochet regime in Chile.

Presente is set in 1980, when a brutal military junta ruled El Salvador. In March 1980, a junta death squad assassinated Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador and the most prominent opponent of the junta. In early December, the world was shocked when a death squad raped and murdered four American churchwomen, including two nuns. The title of the novel, Presente, comes from a memorial service for the victims of the junta, held in San Francisco on December 5, 1980. At that service, the priest called the name of a victim of the junta, beginning with the archbishop, and all in attendance responded with "Presente." The calling of a name and the response continued through the long list of victims, concluding with the four women missionaries. Members of the congregation were then asked to add the names of their family members and friends who had been lost to the Junta, all followed by "Presente."

Mills's novel presents a day-by-day account of events between December 3 and December 24, 1980, centered on the ILWU's refusal to load munitions for the junta. Mills was in the very center of those events as secretary-treasurer of Local 10, but he presents them in his novel through the eyes of Steve Morrow, a fictional Local 10 business agent. Like Morrow, all ILWU officers and members, reporters, and company representatives in the novel have fictional names, giving Mills latitude in creating dialogue and situations. The novel closely follows the events, from the discovery by an ILWU member of the munitions, internal union discussions on refusing to load the munitions, and mobilization of a broad supportive coalition of religious leaders. Mills then presents the negotiations between the ILWU, on one side, and the shipping companies and Department of Defense on the other, which concluded with the munitions being returned to Defense supply depots. By labeling his account fiction, Mills is able to present information and negotiations that were never public and that may never have been recorded.

Woven through the central account of the ILWU's refusal to handle the munitions are accounts of the other work of an ILWU business agent--dealing with clogged toilets on a pier, lift motors that exceeded OSHA noise levels, and shortages in ILWU members' paychecks, all of which Mills would have personally experienced. And in the midst of both such nitty-gritty and opposition to the junta, ILWU officers found a way to support efforts to prevent the execution of Kim Dae-jung, a democratic leader under sentence of death by the authoritarian government in South Korea.

Though ostensibly a novel, Presente is also both a historical record based on Mills's own participation in the events and an object lesson in the importance of developing and maintaining close relations between unions and community organizations devoted to social justice.

Herb Mills started his working life on the Ford production line in Detroit, then went to college, graduating from the University of Michigan as Phi Beta Kappa. In the early 1960s, he was in graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became involved with student activism. In 1963, he left graduate school to become a San Francisco longshore worker. In 1968, he took a leave of absence from Local 10 to complete his PhD in political science at the University of California, Irvine. He returned to Local 10, where he was elected a shop steward, chair of the stewards’ council, business agent, and secretary-treasurer. Reading Presente took me back to times when I sat in Herb's apartment, drinking a "cup of joe," and listening to his accounts of life in Local 10. One sample, from p. 224: "I always lived for the thrill of beating the bosses in a dispute."

Before Herb died, in 2018, he asked Peter Cole to edit the draft of Presente. Herb met Peter when Peter was researching Dockworker Power: Race and Activism, Durban, and the San Francisco Bay Area (2018). Peter gladly took on that responsibility and found a publisher for the book at Hard Ball Press. For more by and about Herb Mills, see Herb Mills: A Tribute (2021), edited by Mike Miller, which includes an interview related to the subject of Presente.

You can find the ILWU's published summary of the events in The Dispatcher (the ILWU's newspaper) for January 9, 1981, pp. 1, 2, and 5. It is available online at https://archive.ilwu.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/19810109.pdf . Herb appears in the photograph of some of the participants in those events on page 5.


Robert W. Cherny is professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University, and author of Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend (2023) and San Francisco Reds: Communists in the Bay Area, 1919-1958 (2024).