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.

By , Correspondent

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    Solidarity in steps: Members of the ILWU Local 10 Drill Team captivated the crowd during a parade in San Francisco in June
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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.

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.

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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.

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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:

“Sound off!”

“1-2.”

“Sound off!”

“3-4.”

Later, Williams organized a drill team for his fraternity at City College of San Francisco. African-American fraternities had a tradition of drilling that went back decades. The moves were influenced by step dancing – which itself borrows from tap dance, New Orleans jazz lines, and traditional African marches.

Above all, the emphasis was on fun – too much fun, apparently, for the college dean. He shut down Williams’s drill squad, ordering the students to “hit the books.” But Williams absorbed the team’s playful style. By 1965, he was ready to graft it onto something new – his union.

With a few strokes of a pen, he modified the drill chants, turning military references into labor terms. Instead of “We are the airborne,” it became, “We are the mighty, mighty union!”

He put together a uniform. Drill team members wear black boots, black jeans, striped shirts emblazoned with the longshore logo, and a white cap called a “West Coast Stetson.” The look seems 1970s disco. But, in fact, it isn’t: Harvey Schwartz, a labor historian in San Francisco, says it was typical of the working-class dress of the waterfront in the 1930s – clothes that were inexpensive and durable.

Williams added the grappling hooks to make the look more authentic. There are a few concessions to style, though, to make the team stand out in a crowd: white belts, yellow scarves, and the taps or “horseshoes” on the bottoms of their boots to accentuate the stomping sounds.

In July 1966, the drill team debuted, marching up Market Street in San Francisco with Chávez and thousands of other farm workers as part of a protest rally. Photos of the event hang in the Local 10 union hall, as well as in Williams’s living room. The day was a fitting start for Williams, whose respect for Chávez runs deep: Williams’s first job as a child was picking crops. “At age 6, Daddy gave me a croaker sack and told me to fill it with cotton,” Williams says.

The drill team became an instant success – popularly received and a way for the union to put its best boot forward.

Today it’s a different time and a different team. For one thing, the role of women has increased in both the union hall and the drill team. Vanetta Hamlin was the first woman to become a “business agent,” an administrative position, with Local 10 in 2006. She was also the first woman to call commands for the drillers. She shrugs modestly when asked how it came about. “The captain,” she says, referring to Williams, “just singles you out.”

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The drill team’s public appearance on this day started like many of them do – with a flurry of flashbulbs. Performers gathered at the corner of Post and Fillmore, where the parade was to start. Residents asked if they could take photos while drill-team members chatted in the shade.
The team’s renown extends beyond the parade route, though. One member, Paul Williams (no relation to Josh), has worked with Poh to produce a rap CD of union chants.

Josh Williams, for his part, will be riding in a car just in front of the team – a privilege of having been the grandmaster of the parade last year. Just before the start, the team comes together in a circle and offers up a prayer.

Moments later, they launch the parade by starting their boot-tapping journey down Fillmore, electrifying the crowd. “That’s a riot,” says one woman as the team marches by.
For the next mile and a half, the members execute complex formations, yell about “the mighty, mighty union,” and throw in plenty of twists and dips to engage the crowd.

Ninety minutes later, they’re back at the union hall with a trophy for first place in the drill-team category. It’s their second trophy in a month. Williams is proud. He has reached a point where recognition comes in from all over, and he can savor his position as unofficial emissary for the union. “That’s my job – ambassador,” he says. “I love it, too.”

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