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Melvin Mackay questioning Port of Oakland Official, Mike Zampa, on May Day 2019.

Staying in the fight: Veteran longshoreman Melvin Mackay still has a lot to say

on September 25, 2020

Melvin Mackay does not equivocate. 

“People don’t like me because I go by the book,” the veteran longshoreman said, referring to the many battles he’s taken on at Bay Area ports.

Liked or not, Mackay is trusted by his union. The 67-year-old Oakland native has served four terms as president of Local 10, the original Bay Area local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dockworkers up and down the West Coast. 

In his 30 years on the docks, Mackay has seen Bay Area cities convert their waterfronts into tourist attractions and wealthy neighborhoods while shippers take their business to other ports for cheaper labor. Now, organized labor faces a Republican administration stacking federal labor agencies, which arbitrate company and union disputes, with anti-union members.

“The battles are more frequent and they’re more uphill,” Mackay said. 

In Richmond, union work on the docks has not only diminished over the years, the surrounding neighborhoods have also changed.

Aerial view of Sandpiper Spit, an upscale residential street just north of Honda Port of Entry.
Aerial view of Sandpiper Spit, an upscale residential street just north of Honda Port of Entry at Port of Richmond.
Credit: Michael Layefsky

“That was our backyard at one time,” Mackay said. “Twenty-five years ago, didn’t nobody want to go to Richmond. Now it’s a well-to-do’s dream.”

Despite all the changes, the most important thing for Mackay, who is currently not in office due to term limits, is to stay in the fight. 

“If you’re not at the table, you miss the menu,” he said.

Trent Willis, current president of Local 10, said Mackay is simply driven by “union service.”

Aerial view of Honda Port of Entry at Port of Richmond, where longshoremen load and unload cars.
Honda Port of Entry at Port of Richmond, where longshoremen load and unload cars.
Credit: Michael Layefsky

“This is a thankless job and he knows it,” Willis said.

That service goes beyond negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions. Mackay is also steeped in the tradition of the ILWU and Local 10, which have always stood in solidarity with broader social movements. 

In June, Mackay travelled to Houston for George Floyd’s memorial with two other ILWU representatives.

“The longshoreman of ILWU is a lifestyle,” said Roland Jackson, a longshoreman of 19 years and Mackay’s son-in-law. “That’s him leading by example.”

Despite changes to the waterfront that threaten union jobs, Mackay remains steadfast.

“Working on the waterfront is a pride,” he said. “It’s we the people who have to make it stronger.”

(Lead photo: Mackay questioning Port of Oakland official, Mike Zampa, in 2019. Photo by David Bacon)

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