University News

WIU Professor Releases Book on Union Activism by Dockworkers

February 21, 2019

Share |
Printer friendly version

MACOMB, IL – A Western Illinois University professor, whose research delves into historical social justice themes, has authored a new book outlining the power dockworkers have exercised over time through their labor unions, particularly in the struggle for racial equality and other social justice issues.

History Professor Peter Cole recently released "Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area," through the University of Illinois Press. Cole's first book, "Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia," studied unions in the 1910s and 20s and was released in 2007.

"When I wrote my first book on dockworkers, I never envisioned writing a second," said Cole. "But the more interested I became, the more their power became fascinating – the way they used it for other causes."

Cole has repeatedly visited both Durban, South Africa, and the San Francisco Bay Area in California, as part of his work. His research looks at how the organized workers in both locations used their power on behalf of others, including a 10-day work stoppage in the 1980s to protest the racist politics of South Africa and promote black equality.

The workers' influence over transportation and logistics gives them power, Cole said, to exact change on behalf of causes important to them, including social justice causes in their own cities and countries as well as in other countries. Coles research includes comparing the historical power of the unions between the United States and South Africa.

"As professors of U.S. history, we are trained as historians of America," said Cole. "However, I also teach courses comparing the histories of different countries, and these visits allowed me to be able to compare aspects of these two countries. They share a lot culturally because of their similar histories, including centuries of racial oppression and resistance to that. The comparison is necessary to draw a larger conclusion and we learn truth from both the similarities and differences."

Cole said he expects his book's audience to include historians, Bay Area and Durban residents, dockworkers and other unionists, as well as those who live in port cities.

"Our biggest, most dramatic cities are port cities and sometimes we take that for granted," he said. "Ninety percent of the stuff we consume moves by ship and those dockworkers are proud of their history and centrality to the global economy."

The cover for Cole's book is a photograph taken by renowned South African photographer David Golblatt, who gave permission for its use before he died last year.

Cole will be traveling to present his research in the coming months, including at a conference in South Africa and another at Duke University. He also applies his research in the classes he teaches at WIU.

For more information on Cole's new book, visit

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Communications & Marketing