Dave Arian (1946–2019): Love of Family, Union, and Social Justice
January 2, 2019
LOS ANGELES — Alan David Arian, 72, a prominent labor leader, accomplished community organizer, fierce social justice activist, and respected civic leader, died Wednesday at his home in San Pedro, surrounded by family and friends, after a brief and valiant fight against cancer.
Known to most everyone as “Dave” or “David,” Arian rose from part-time dockworker and upstart left-wing political organizer to international president of the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners. A self-described radical, Arian will be remembered as a passionate, generous, truth-talking organizer who effectively used his influence to promote economic justice, racial equality, peace and grassroots democracy.
Arian’s life revolved around his three loves: his family, his union, and a progressive political movement. He integrated the three into a lifelong mission to promote economic and social change, to help others, and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
“The thing that means the most is what you give back,” Arian said in a 2014 interview. “That’s what stays with you. Your family. Your grandkids. The movement. Those are things that are real in life. It’s a movement of why your life could be different, how you could fulfill your life and not always be “it’s about me.”
Hundreds of friends rallied to support Arian since August, when he announced he had been diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, a rare and brutally aggressive form of cancer. The number and range of people attending organizing meetings to support Arian demonstrated the unique and powerful impact he had on so many people — family and friends, progressive activists and elected officials, recovering addicts and business executives, port officials and waterfront workers.
An equally diverse array of people mourned his passage, and underscored his impact on Los Angeles.
“David Arian embodies what service means for his fellow human being,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “From the docks to the board room, his humor, his intelligence, and his commitment to justice built the most successful port in the Americas while doing right for the workers and the community that are the lifeblood of the harbor community. Our city and our world are better places because of David Arian’s extraordinary career and because of his deep humanity.”
Arian was “a revolutionary leader and organizer, a principled man of the working class, a thinker and speaker, a tireless fighter for justice,” said Luis Rodriguez, former Los Angeles poet laureate, political activist, and friend of Arian’s since the 1960s. “His battles, struggles, and triumphs have helped so many people, in the Harbor area, but also throughout the U.S.”
“You could not find a better friend or comrade or advocate,” said Norm Tuck, Arian’s best friend and fellow dockworker for 50 years. “He had the most amazing values. He believed everyone should have a voice and there should be justice for everyone. He would stand up for those values and for people, no matter what.”
Arian was most widely-known as a fiercely loyal and active member and leader of the ILWU. After working as a casual on the docks lugging bananas for 5 years, Arian became a full-fledged member of ILWU Local 13 in 1969, following in the footsteps of his father, “Honest Lou” Arian. He joined the union’s district council in 1970 and then won election and served two terms as president of Local 13, starting in 1984. In 1991, he ran an aggressive grassroots campaign for the presidency of the international union, winning an upset victory to become only the third person in union history to hold the job. His election sent shockwaves through the union, prompting the San Francisco Examiner to report that “some union old-timers regard him as a left-wing radical.” He was unseated in the next election in 1994, but was elected again in 2004 as president of Local 13 in Los Angeles. He later served as president of the Southern California District Council of the ILWU.
As a labor leader, Arian took a hard line with employers, but earned a reputation as a pragmatic dealmaker. He was instrumental in winning dramatic increases in pension benefits for workers, insisting on more stringent workplace safety rules, and creating a “one-door policy” for entrance and advancement into the union through the hiring hall. He reinvigorated the union’s organizing efforts, and helped double the size of the ILWU workforce at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Early in his career, he played a key role in changing the ILWU registration process to allow women to become union members.
“Dave Arian was a treasure,” said Luisa Gratz, president of ILWU Local 26, and the first female trade unionist of any ILWU local, elected in 1983. “Some people believe in something and don’t do anything about it. And some people actually live what they believe — and Dave Arian lived it. Dave and his family lived through the struggle and help build ILWU. The best way people can honor him is to get involved in the union, be part of the change in this country, and stand for something. That’s what Dave Arian did — heart and soul.”
Arian was an advocate for teaching labor and progressive history. In 1992, he founded the Harry Bridges Institute, an education project committed to preserving the history of the union movement and working families. When he retired from the waterfront in 2009, he published the book “The Right to Get in the Fight” and produced the film “Eye of Storm,” both recounting the history and significance of the ILWU.
Arian used his perch as a labor leader to advance other progressive causes, pushing the ILWU to refuse to handle cargo from apartheid-era South Africa, opposing the shipment of nuclear fuel rods through West Coast ports, organizing solidarity marches for striking grocery workers, and corralling labor voters in Nevada to turn out to vote for Barack Obama. He said he felt that the ILWU, as a powerful and progressive union, had an obligation to support other struggles, and to make real its slogan, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”
When he retired in 2009, Arian said the ILWU gave him the opportunity to live true to his ideals. “If it weren’t for the ILWU, I’d be in jail or be dead,” he said. “The ILWU has allowed me to have political views that are not mainstream, and the luxury of expressing those views and making a good living. If I wasn’t in this union, there’s very few jobs I’d be able to keep. My political views and things I’ve fought for would have isolated me in this society.”
A working class intellectual who read 50 books a year, Arian mastered history and political and economic theory, despite never earning a college degree. His biting analysis of capitalism and economic power formed the backbone of his progressive worldview and of his political organizing.
Arian’s activism started early. Born into a politically active labor-left family, one of his earliest memories was attending a candlelight vigil for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg with his mother, Rose Arian, a dedicated activist who had been arrested protesting nuclear testing in Nevada. In high school, he attended an NAACP protest in Torrance with his sister Laraine, and in 1965 he was arrested (for the first of many times) at the Wilshire Federal Building during a demonstration in solidarity with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights workers in Selma, Alabama.
Arian became an outspoken advocate for civil rights and an early, militant opponent of the war in Vietnam. He organized and attended demonstrations throughout the state, traveling with groups of friends in his magenta-colored station wagon or VW bus, forming coalitions with members of the burgeoning student, Black Power and Chicano movements. In 1966, he opened the Community Action Center (CAC) in San Pedro, creating a drop-in center where hundreds of young people gathered and learned about political issues, such as civil rights, Vietnam, and the Delano grape boycott. The facility was shot at, and eventually burned down.
The CAC was where Arian met and fell in love with Roxanne Nielsen, a fellow San Pedro resident. They married in 1968, and Roxanne gave birth to their son Sean in 1969 and their daughter Justine in 1972. The two later amicably divorced, remaining close and lifelong friends.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Arian worked as a grassroots organizer with striking employees in San Francisco and other cities, with former members of Students for a Democratic Society, and with activists with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Communist Labor Party. It was during a trip to Michigan in 1976 to campaign for a CLP candidate for the state legislature that Arian met and began a 8-year long romantic relationship and decades-long political partnership with Diane Middleton. In the late 1990s, he helped found the Diane Middleton Foundation, which provided funding and support for grassroots progressive and labor efforts in Los Angeles.
“Dave has made a lasting impact on me and organizers all around Los Angeles, demanding deep commitment and analysis and providing support and mentorship,” said Becky Dennison, who met Arian when she founded the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA-CAN). “Among his so many talents and contributions, I have been most inspired by his integrity, fierceness, humor and love, which he used in unique contribution to demonstrate, demand and advance justice.”
Arian’s strong community and labor credentials afforded him access to power that his politics might not have. He became a friend and trusted confidante of Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti, County Supervisor Janice Hahn, Congressmembers Alan Lowenthal and Nanette Barragan, and City Councilmember Joe Buscaino. In 2006, Villaraigosa appointed him to serve on the joint Port of Los Angeles-Port of Long Beach Advisory Board for the San Pedro Bay Clean Air Action Plan. In 2010, Villaraigosa appointed him to the powerful Board of Harbor Commissions, and Garcetti re-appointed him to the post in 2014.
As vice president of the commission, Arian relished the role of bridge-builder, making sure that the port benefitted everyone. “My role on the Port Commission is to ensure a social compact,” he said in 2013. “The port has to continue to produce and make money. The terminals have to do well, the workers have to be protected, and the community has to benefit from it.”
During his tenure on the commission, Arian championed projects that benefited the community and protected workers, including the Wilmington Waterfront Park and the new ILWU Hiring Hall. He was a supporter and staunch defender of the port’s waterfront development efforts. His vision for a workforce training center included not only the “just transition” of longshore labor into a cleaner, more efficient port complex but also a jobs pipeline for the local community into adjacent cargo-related operations.
In response to intensified competition from other trade gateways, Arian supported the port’s continued infrastructure development, including the Main Channel deepening, development of on-dock rail, and terminal modernization. Arian also challenged the port to evolve out of its traditional landlord role and work more closely with its business partners on efficiency measures, like development of a data sharing portal, peel-off operations, and expanded gate hours.
When Villaraigosa appointed him to the commission, Arian’s militant labor background concerned some — but he turned them around.
Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles and a former shipping executive, said Arian built relationships based on trust and mutual respect and a desire to find common ground.
“He had the ability to speak with a dockworker and CEO in much the same way-straightforward and solutions driven,” Seroka said. “He got the most out of people while making them believe in themselves. When bargaining, he wanted to win, but not at all costs. In business, he believed shared success drove long term partnerships. With people, he stayed involved, kept talking and saw issues through. Many times he would tell me, “stay at the table and things will get done.”
Arian said his pragmatic approach is one he learned on the docks in the 1960s — from a black revolutionary named Nelson Peery, who urged him to use his keen mind to channel his political energy.
“He gave me a foundation for me being analytical politically, not just being emotional, and not just being a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the world, but really seeing what you could achieve and what you could not achieve,” he said. “To get things done, you have to be objective, and that means being realistic about what is possible in that point in history.”
Tuck, who was part of ILWU leadership and negotiating teams with Arian, said “David was a firebrand, and could stand up to anyone, and his intellect gave him the ability to look at a situation, get to the real heart of the matter. He knew what the end of the conversation needed to be and how to get there.”
By far, Arian’s proudest achievement was his large and tight-knit family and circle of friends, for whom he was patriarch, wise man, voice of common sense, and source of encouragement. At large family functions, he could be found playing with the grandkids, tending to the barbecue grill, or in a long conversation with someone needing guidance.
His son Sean and daughter Justine recall a devoted father who coached youth sports, attended countless school functions, drove them on long cross-country trips in his Dodge van, and visited them in foreign locales. Arian was, they said, an indefatigable champion of their interests, their talents, and their careers, and the nucleus of frequent family trips to Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, and Desert Hot Springs.
In retirement, Arian became a particularly engaged grandfather, babysitting, attending soccer games, school recitals, and swimming lessons — and walking with his grandchildren in the annual Wilmington Labor Day Parade or teaching his grandson “The Internationale.” A few months before his passing, Arian said “one of the highlights of social activism in this family” was seeing both of his children and all five of his children attend the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles in January 2017.
For Arian, family was not limited to blood relations. He embraced and welcomed others, offering a bed, a job, a second chance and often a home to anyone who needed it. The “Dave Arian’s Wellness Journey” page on Facebook is full of moving testimonials from people Arian helped and influenced. One friend noted that “You will always exemplify for me what Che meant in that famous quote about true revolutionaries being guided by great love.”
Mary Gimenez-Caulder, a San Pedro resident who has known generations of Arians, said the family is known for displaying an abundance of “friendship, honesty, trust, generosity, and most of all love and acceptance of all people. Dave embodied all of those traits and more.”
Arian was born December 4, 1946. He grew up on 8th Street in San Pedro, attended Cabrillo Elementary School and Dana Junior High School, graduated from San Pedro High School in 1965, and attended classes at LA Harbor College. He devoted himself to supporting community causes and organizations, including Toberman Settlement House, Harbor Interfaith Shelter, Beacon House Association and San Pedro Boys & Girls Club, where he played as a child. He was a tremendous booster of the San Pedro High School Pirates football team, attending games regularly.When Arian was not working, attending meetings, organizing, or babysitting, he enjoyed reading, swimming, practicing bikram yoga, rooting for his beloved Lakers and Dodgers, and traveling, particularly with family.
Arian is survived by: his son Sean and husband Mike Bonin of Los Angeles, and their son Jacob; his daughter Justine Arian-Edwards and husband Ethan of Huntington Beach, and their children, Jadyn, Destan, Aneka and Keira; his sister, Laraine Arian, of San Pedro; his ex-wife and close friend, Roxanne Arian, of San Pedro; and dozens of nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and extended family members. He is predeceased by his brother Arthur, who died in 2006.
Details on memorial services are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Dave Arian’s name to the Harry Bridges Institute.