It was May 23, 1978. Herb Mills, leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, went down to San Francisco’s Pier 32 to inspect a suspicious shipment. He found twenty-two crates of “bomb fin tall assemblies” destined for Chile.

When word spread, dockworkers rose up: They refused to load U.S. military aid for Augusto Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship. A month later, on June 23, Mills got a phone call at 9am from the White House, letting him know that the shipment had been canceled “pending a review” of Pinochet’s human rights violations. “The union has won,” chanted the longshoremen. This major win launched Mills, with extraordinary force, into the history of solidarity between U.S. workers and international struggles.

Mills was one of those union activists guided by an immense commitment to humanity and freedom. As a teenager, Mills worked for the River Rouge United Autoworkers Union (UAW), whose struggles and strikes improved the conditions of workers across the country. His experience in the UAW made him a union activist for the rest of his life.

As Mills once said, solidarity is part of union culture. As leader of ILWU Local 10, he stopped ships from carrying military cargo to the brutal Salvadoran junta. He refused to discharge coffee beans from apartheid South Africa. To support farmworkers, he rejected government-purchased grapes during the Cesar Chavez boycott. He was also involved in the successful stay of execution of Kim Dae-jung, a South Korean leader who was on the verge of being executed. Notably, Mills played a leading role in one of the longest strikes of the longshore workers in 1971, who demanded better safety protections for workers unloading toxic materials. 

Mills died in 2018 before finalizing his novel PRESENTE, A Dockworker Story. His wife, Rebecca Mills, fought to get the novel finished and edited, and it was finally published in 2023. Though Mills called his novel a work of fiction, in reality, it’s a creative autobiography that gives an intimate look into how his work as a longshoreman had local and international impact.  By inventing the fictional protagonist Steve Morrow, Mills gave himself free rein to his recollections, speaking freely as a man who lived his entire life guided only by his principles.

I always had great respect and admiration for Mills, not only as a labor leader, but also as an outstanding longshoreman. My grandfather worked for many years as a longshoreman in the ports of northern Chile. With zero worker protections, life was very trying in those times. One day, while disembarking a cargo ship, a heavy object fell on my grandfather’s leg, leaving him lame for the rest of his life.

Reading Mills’ book, it’s clear his actions were always guided by a deep love for the exploited working class. Many of us in South America thought that the people of the United States were all fervent admirers and supporters of the violent and imperialist policies of their government. But Mills’ actions made it clear that there are supporters who are capable of risking everything in protests, standing up to the injustices committed by U.S. imperialism around the globe.

Fernando A. Torres

Fernando A. Torres is a journalist, author and long-time contributor to El Tecolote newspaper. His most recent book Walks Through Memories of Oblivion retells flashbacks of resistance, prison & exile...