International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)

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For several decades after its founding in 1895, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) functioned mainly as a collection of local unions and regional federations. The ILA faced a sharp challenge from One Big Union advocates during the era of World War I; it suffered major losses during the "lean years" of the 1920s; and in 1937 the union's rebellious Pacific Coast District split off to form the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). But in the face of persistent charges that it was corrupt, undemocratic, and "in no real sense of the word a labor union at all," the ILA survived and in some locations thrived.

The ILA's origins can be traced to the founding of local unions of lumber handlers and tugboatmen on the Great Lakes in the 1870s. A number of these unions combined to form the National Longshoremen's Association of the United States in 1892. Following the affiliation of Canadian locals, the organization changed its name to the International Longshoremen's Association, and it received a charter from the American Federation of Labor in 1896.

By the turn of the century, the ILA had thousands of members on the Great Lakes. But New York, home to one third of the nation's longshoremen, remained the key to the union's future. The ILA signed its first port-wide agreement in New York in 1916. Although union members were granted preference in employment, the contract did not address the vast surplus of labor that was the hallmark of the port.

Between 1916 and 1945, the hourly wage on the New York waterfront increased from 40 cents to $1.45. But there were no authorized strikes until 1948. There was also no democratic procedure within the union and no effective advocacy of the members' interests. To many observers, it appeared that the ILA's principal function was to "keep the lid on."

The man who warmed to that task was the colorful Joseph P. Ryan, who emerged as the union's central figure during the 1920s and eventually became its "president for life." On his watch the ILA began the rapid descent into "gangsterism" that was so vividly portrayed in Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront (1954). New York's longshoremen remained more or less quiescent in the 1930s, in part because of organized crime's ominous presence in and around the union, but also because the dockworkers were enmeshed in a cultural network that offered few openings to the forces of change. In Irish-American neighborhoods such as Chelsea, family, ethnicity, and faith were the foundation stones of daily life, and outsiders were unwelcome.

But it was different on the West Coast, where the union's Pacific Coast District called a walkout in May 1934 that mobilized longshoremen from San Diego in the south to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the north. The legendary "Big Strike," which lasted for eighty-three days, spread to other seafaring crafts and eventually triggered a four-day general strike in the San Francisco Bay area. The walkout also ushered in a "Pentecostal" era of union militancy among West Coast dockworkers that eventually propelled them out of the ILA and the AFL and into the welcoming arms of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO). Led by Australian immigrant Harry Bridges—"Red Harry" to his friends, as well as his enemies—the ILWU confidently set out to topple the ILA by attacking its New York stronghold and the strategic southern port of New Orleans.

Joe Ryan's "goons" easily repelled Bridges's men in New York, making New Orleans all the more important to the ILWU's, and the ILA's, future. In the Crescent City, race would play a critical role, because black longshoremen outnumbered whites by a three-to-one margin and were determined to defend their turf against white encroachment. In an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board in 1938, New Orleans longshoremen voted overwhelmingly for the ILA in a bitter contest with the ILWU. In a competitive labor market, they believed that racially separate unionism would serve their interests better than the racial egalitarianism of the ILWU. Even in the midst of the post-World War II civil rights revolution that demolished de jure segregation, black longshoremen in New Orleans and other southern ports clung to their "separate but equal" organizations, until a federal court compelled them to merge with white ILA locals in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, in New York, Catholic "labor priests" developed close ties with rank-and-file insurgents at the end of World War II, and for the next decade the waterfront became a hotbed of conflict. A wave of wildcat strikes helped bring down the Ryan regime and nearly destroyed the union in the nation's largest port. But the ILA survived and adapted—unevenly—to the new rights-conscious environment and to the mechanization of cargo handling.



Kimeldorf, Howard. Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. 1988.

Markholt, Ottilie. Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism, 1929–1938. 1998.

Mers, Gilbert. Working the Waterfront: The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman. 1988.

Nelson, Bruce. Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. 2001.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. 1988.

Russell, Maud. Men along the Shore. 1966.

Bruce Nelson

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International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)

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International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)