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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”
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.”