By Dick Meister
This year marks the third anniversary of the death of an extraordinary but
generally unheralded labor leader, former President Jimmy Herman of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Most people undoubtedly know of Harry Bridges, the ILWU's legendary founding
president. But most people undoubtedly do not know of Herman, his
successor. They should.
Many leaders preach "solidarity," but few practiced it to a greater degree
-- or with greater success - than did Jimmy Herman. The ILWU and unions
generally were just some of the many beneficiaries of Herman's unshakable
belief in his union's credo that "an injury to one is an injury to all."
He not only led the way to the forging of strong new alliances
within the labor movement. He also led the ILWU's members and
others into solidarity with masses of needy and mistreated people in the
United States and abroad. That brought crucial aid and comfort to America's
oppressed farm workers; to dissidents opposing brutal authoritarian regimes
in Central America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere; to those struggling to
overcome drug abuse, and to many others.
Herman, elected in l977 to succeed Bridges, was a short, stocky,
physically unremarkable man with little formal education beyond
elementary school. But he was a spellbinding orator and brilliant
self-educated thinker and tactician. His fierce commitment to the ordinary
people who did the work of the world, his outspoken contempt for those who
exploited them, his compassion for the underprivileged, his absolute refusal
to tolerate injustice was obvious to anyone within range of his
exceptionally persuasive voice.
"He was a great orator because what he said came from his heart," noted
Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski of the AFL-CIO's California Labor
Herman was left-wing and proud of it. "A lot of people don't like that
label," he once said, "but to me it means working for working people and the
poor. It means you have to embrace the struggle to change the conditions
under which you live."
Succeeding the celebrated Bridges was a formidable task, but Herman quickly
proved equal to it, thanks in part to his experience during the previous 16
years as a popular and extremely active leader of ILWU Local 34 in San
Francisco. He held the ILWU presidency for the next 14 years, until
reaching the union's mandatory retirement age of 65 in 1991.
Like Bridges, Herman insisted that rank-and-file members retain their tight
control over the union, perhaps the nation's most democratic, and continue
exercising the militancy that helped them win steady improvements in pay,
benefits and working conditions.
Herman's skill in negotiating contracts with employers also had much to do
with the improvements - and they were considerable. During his time in
office, basic pay of longshoremen, for instance, rose from $75 to $168 a
It was during Herman's presidency, too, that the Inlandboatmen's Union,
whose members operate tugs, barges, passenger ferries and other vessels on
the West Coast, affiliated with the ILWU. That gave important new muscle to
both organizations. The ILWU and unions representing lumber workers and
others in the forest products industry were similarly strengthened by
joining together in a federation headed by Herman.
Even before he became president, Herman led ad hoc committees of unionists
formed as support groups for striking Bay Area unions. He was also a key
figure in garnering support for the fledgling United Farm Workers union.
As ILWU president, Herman's most important act of union solidarity was
leading the organization into the AFL-CIO.
"Affiliation is a momentous event in our history,l Herman declared. "It puts
all of us where we belong - together, in a united labor movement .... All of
us need all the mutual help we can get."
With Herman as president, as with Bridges before him, longshoremen often
refused to handle cargo going to or coming from nations controlled by
oppressive regimes. Their boycotts were waged despite employer threats to
levy heavy fines on the ILWU and individual members, whose unflinching
stands ultimately forced the bosses to back off.
Herman also was a major supporter of the Delancey Street Foundation in San
Francisco, one of the country's most successful drug rehabilitation
programs. Foundation President Mimi Silbert recalled that Herman, a member
of the organization's board of directors, visited its live-in facility
regularly "to have coffee with the residents, sitting with them, talking,
getting them interested in issues outside themselves, literally elevating
their knowledge and their faith in themselves."
He was a highly influential member of the city's Port Commission and played
an important role as well in helping city officials settle labor-management
disputes that threatened vital municipal services and in helping them ease
serious racial tensions that arose during the 1960s.
To Jimmy Herman, "Solidarity Forever" obviously was much more than a song.
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor
issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.
2001 Dick Meister.