Longshoremen drill team presents different image of dockworkers
At parades and other events, members of a local union in San Francisco dazzle crowds with a routine that is part Riverdance, part Marine Corps march.
A phalanx of longshoremen stomps down the middle of Fillmore Street in downtown San Francisco. Steely, disciplined, and imposing, they’re chanting slogans and swinging grappling hooks.Skip to next paragraph
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There is, however, no threat here. This isn’t a reprise of Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” They are merely part of a parade, generating their own joyful din.
This is the longshoremen’s drill team, the creation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with its hard-nosed reputation for grueling work in the grittiest of worlds.
On this sun-splashed morning, the workers are clapping and clomping their way through San Francisco’s Juneteenth Parade.
The boisterous team executes maneuvers dubbed “double to the rear with a fake,” “soul beat,” and “contract negotiation” at a volume designed to wake up the neighborhood. For good measure, they occasionally slash the air with their barbed irons.
The performance is part Riverdance, part Marine Corps march – with a lot of percussive noise and Isaac Hayes thrown in. The team provides a creative outlet for workers and helps burnish the image – or at least boost the profile – of the longshoremen’s union at a time when organized labor is in retreat in America.
“The union can use us in many ways,” says “Captain” Josh Williams, the drill team’s founder and leader emeritus.
The team performs at sports venues and other civic gatherings as well as at union meetings and even on picket lines. Some two dozen union workers belong to the drill team, all of whom are either full- or part-time dockworkers. They practice weekly at the Local 10 hiring hall. Members come with all different levels of skill and for all different reasons.
“I joined because I liked the beat – I like to dance,” says Boon Poh, a Malaysian who’s been in the US 22 years. When he’s not moving ship cargo, Mr. Poh works as a DJ under the name “Sonic Boon.” Like many team members, he knows what the steel-toed troupe means to the longshoremen. “It’s very important to the union – a part of our solidarity,” he says.
The group’s history goes back more than 40 years, long enough for members to have marched with César Chávez and performed for Martin Luther King Jr. Their approach has always been unique, combining union pride with disparate customs and cultures that reach back centuries. But whatever the Longshoremen’s twist on the old saw of “everyone loves a parade,” one thing is clear: The crowd does love this entrant in the parade.
“Our form of drilling is comical,” says Mr. Williams. “It makes people laugh.”
Williams launched the group in 1965 by simply taking the idea to the executive board. They promptly agreed. “Kinda dazzled myself that I organized it,” says Williams, who, now a septuagenarian, was a three-sport athlete in high school. “Next thing I know, 20 guys showed up and we started practicing every week.”
Actually, Williams had organized drill teams before. With stints in ROTC and the California National Guard in the 1950s, he learned the fundamentals of cadence drilling – the call-and-response songs that soldiers chant while running or marching. The most renowned of these, the Duckworth chant, has been popularized in countless Hollywood movies: