Leo L. Robinson, ILWU Local 10: Guerrilla fighter for the people

by Malaika Kambon

Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which a small group using the element of surprise and extraordinary mobility dominates a larger and less-mobile traditional army or strikes a vulnerable target and withdraws almost immediately.

Leo-Robinson-memorial-widow-Johnnie-Robinson-receives-Freedom-Award-to-Leo-So.-African-flag-from-SA-Ambassador-Ebrahi, Leo L. Robinson, ILWU Local 10: Guerrilla fighter for the people, Local News & Views World News & Views Araminta Harriet Ross, better known as “General” Harriet Tubman, was one of the greatest guerrilla fighters the world has ever known. Born into enslavement in 1820, she freed herself.

As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she went on 19 missions, freed over 300 enslaved Afrikans. In 1863, during the Civil War, she planned and executed a successful armed assault in South Carolina that freed 756 enslaved Afrikans.

Fearful of her successes, the Southern slavocracy offered a $40,000 ransom for her capture, which coincidentally was the same amount of foreign aid that President Thomas Jefferson gave Napoleon to assist his efforts in re-enslaving Haiti.

Napoleon failed and gave Jefferson the famous Louisiana Purchase in recompense.

Harriet Tubman succeeded, was not ever captured and was known to threaten to shoot anyone who tried to turn back, stating, “You will be free or die.”

Years later, she said, “I was a conductor of the Underground Railway for eight years. I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century and another freedom fighter arises, the incomparable Leo L. Robinson, named the “King of Labor” and recognized across the globe as a fierce guerrilla fighter against oppression and for the rights of the rank and file.

Leo-Robinson-memorial-widow-Johnnie-Robinson-holds-plaque-of-The-Dispatch-ILWU-Local-10-newspaper-032413-by-Malaika-web, Leo L. Robinson, ILWU Local 10: Guerrilla fighter for the people, Local News & Views World News & Views His forte was hardball politics – messing with the president. A member of the ILWU Local 10, No. 6461 from 1963 to 12:01 a.m., July 1, 1999, both Leo Robinson and the young Cassius Clay recognized the same thing at virtually the same time in history.

Young Mr. Robinson was asked, “What kind of a threat do the Vietnamese pose to you?” Young Mr. Cassius Clay famously said, “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” He then refused to be drafted into the Army and was stripped of his boxing titles.

Mr. Robinson, who enlisted in the Navy in 1954 to avoid a life of “criminal” activity, said of the experience that he spent “three years, 11 months, 22 days, 11 hours and 45 minutes of wasted time.”

Neither man, once inducted into activism, ever gave up.

By these realizations were both men propelled into a lifetime of activism consisting of confronting and battling capitalism and imperialism with a belief in the power of the people: the power of the grassroots, the power of the working class. They both believed that together, the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden and oppressed masses can stop the world, that the revolution will be won, and that the power of the people can shut these suckers down.

Both men individually were a force to be reckoned with – one a professional boxer, the other a professional labor leader and organizer, a kind of boxer in his own right.

And both men are and have always been champions in their chosen professions.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and another freedom fighter arises, the incomparable Leo L. Robinson, named the “King of Labor” and recognized across the globe as a fierce guerrilla fighter against oppression and for the rights of the rank and file.

Leo Robinson grew ever stronger by fighting for the working class and by fighting for human rights. His list of accomplishments reads like a bible of collective and individual political activity and accomplishments:

  • Co-founded the Northern California Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CTBU), sent to Washington, D.C., in 1977 to help establish the Women’s Commission; supporter of the first female secretary-treasurer to be elected in Local 10’s history;
  • Wrote the 1977 resolution calling for the boycotting of all South African cargo in response to the 1976 Soweto Massacre of Black South African school children;
  • Was elected speaker about South African liberation struggles at numerous anti-apartheid rallies;
  • Sponsored ANC members to come to the U.S. to speak, and along with community groups and the CTBU, organized the first trade union conference on apartheid held at San Francisco State University;
  • Fought for all international unions to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a paid holiday;
  • Fought to protect two Black women in Oroville who were being attacked and harassed by the KKK;
  • As part of the CBTU leadership, was an official Black trade unionist delegate to Cuba and Nicaragua in 1983; was the ILWU international rank and file representative to attend the 11th World Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unionists held in Berlin, Germany, in 1986;
  • Organized the African-American Longshore Coalition in 1986 to fight the internal problems of “racism, sexism, white privilege and all forms of discrimination,” which he felt would destroy the ILWU if not addressed;
  • In 1994, helped an African Studies instructor to move his entire library of books to Tanzania and wrote the ILWU position paper on the Israeli-Palestine question, calling for the PLO to be recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people;
  • In 2004, collaborated with the Local 10 ILWU rank and file membership to write the resolution calling for a Million Worker March in Washington, D.C., stipulating that there be NO elected officials speaking; on Oct. 17, 2004, the march drew thousands.
  • Marched with tens of thousands of members of the Occupy Movement to shut down the Port of Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011, declaring that “the Occupy Movement is not separate and apart from the labor movement. More than anything else, it is a direct challenge or raises the question of the rights of capital as opposed to the rights of the worker.”

Listen to this powerful interview with Africa Today host Dr. Walter Turner and union leader “The Real” Clarence Thomas of ILWU Local 10: “The Life of ILWU Local 10 Activist Leo Robinson with ILWU Local 10 Member Clarence Thomas on Africa Today,” broadcast March 18, 2013:

Watch the powerful documentary, “ILWU Local 10 Member and Anti-apartheid Activist Leo Robinson: A Life In Struggle,” produced by the Labor Video Project, to see how Leo Robinson successfully organized the ILWU’s fight and victory against South African apartheid.

Leo L. Robinson believed in the power of the union, and in the power of the people. He fought to change the conditions of women within the ILWU just as fiercely as he fought against the apartheid regime of South Africa.

He believed that we all have a responsibility to battle imperialism and that the working class will not accept the juggernaut attempting to re-enslave, murder and kill us. “Go into struggle and battle for victory,” said a speaker at Leo’s memorial service, recalling his wisdom. “Victory is ours if only we struggle.”

Leo L. Robinson made his transition on Jan. 14, 2013. Born on May 26, 1937, he was 76.

At the memorial service on March 24, 2013, Leo Robinson, ILWU guerrilla fighter for the people, was posthumously awarded the Leo L. Robinson and Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Awards for outstanding contributions to the freedom of South Africa by South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and South African Consul-General of Los Angeles Cyril S. Ndaba. Accepting for Mr. Robinson was his wife, Mrs. Johnnie Bell Robinson.

ILWU Local 10 was awarded the Leo L. Robinson Humanitarian Award for outstanding contributions to the freedom of South Africa by Consul-General Ndaba. This documentary of the memorial service, too, was produced by the Labor Video Project.

“Inhale the spirit of Leo Robinson. Embody the spirit and go into struggle and battle for victory. Victory is ours only if we struggle,” said one of several who spoke at the memorial service.

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance photojournalist and the 2011 winner of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association Luci S. Williams Houston Scholarship in Photojournalism. She also won the AAU state and national championship in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2010. She can be reached at kambonrb@pacbell.net.