International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union

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INTERNATIONAL LONGSHOREMEN'S AND WAREHOUSEMEN'S UNION. Although founded in 1937, the International Longshoremen's and Ware-housemen's Union (ILWU) has origins rooted in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1912, a group of West Coast locals bolted the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in opposition to the undemocratic practices of East Coast ILA presidents Dan Keefe and T. V. O'Connor. Like his predecessor Keefe, who resigned in 1908, O'Connor continued the practice of buying votes through his grip on the abusive hiring system. Lacking job security, longshoremen often sold their votes in exchange for being selected to join daily work crews. On the West Coast, the ILA emerged within a more militant and democratic context, as the radical Industrial Workers of the World exercised influence among longshoremen. In 1915, the clash between militant and corrupt union practices caused a split in ILA West Coast leadership. Company unions emerged, which longshoremen unsuccessfully challenged in a 1919 strike. For a decade, company unions and the Waterfront Employers Association undermined genuine longshoremen organization.

In 1933, longshoremen revived ILA locals on the Pacific Coast. The next year, company unions collapsed when ILA members struck all Pacific ports. ILA locals demanded unified bargaining by all West Coast maritime unions over wages, union hiring halls, and hours. The conflict resulted in the death of six workers, and hundreds of strikers were injured. After a four-day general strike in San Francisco led by militant workers and supported by the Communist Party, employers finally agreed to arbitration, which granted the union most of its demands. Moreover, the strike entrenched militant leaders like Harry Bridges, who became president of the San Francisco ILA local in 1936.

In 1936, Bridges entered into dispute with East Coast–based ILA president Joseph Ryan over strategy pursued by West Coast locals to unite all maritime unions into one federation. Ideological differences and ILA refusal to ally itself with unskilled workers sharpened the conflict. As an American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliate, the anticommunist ILA adhered to craft unionism and declined entering into bargaining agreements with the unskilled. In February 1937, Bridges defied Ryan and led workers in a ninety-eight-day strike that failed to make significant gains for West Coast locals. While Bridges blamed Ryan and his lack of support for the strike's failure, the East Coast ILA leader called Bridges and his lieutenant, Louis Goldblatt, "puppets of the international communist conspiracy." In 1937, growing ideological hostility, coupled with opposing trade union philosophies, prompted the Bridges-led Pacific Coast ILA to break with Ryan and affiliate with the recently formed and more inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).This event resulted in the West Coast locals receiving a CIO charter to form the ILWU. The separation was finalized when ILWU members elected Harry Bridges as their president.

Because the ILWU constitution prohibited political discrimination, Communist Party influence remained, and some of its members held several key union posts. The Soviet-American alliance during World War II ensured ILWU enforcement of no-strike pledges and maximum productivity. The ILWU then expanded its activities into Hawaii, organizing not only longshoremen, but also workers in agriculture, hotels, and tourism. The ILWU became one of the first multiracial and multiethnic unions as Asians, Latinos, and African Americans filled its ranks.

Cold War politics threatened the union's stability and survival. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required the signing by union leaders of affidavits disavowing communist affiliation. The initial refusal by ILWU officials to sign affidavits left the union vulnerable to raids by rival unions. The ILWU responded by seeking National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) intervention. In exchange for NLRB protection, ILWU officials ultimately signed the affidavits. This did not end the union's political problems, and in 1950 the CIO expelled the ILWU for alleged communist domination.

Despite political isolation, the ILWU had successfully maintained control over the hiring hall and entered into a new era of cooperation with employers. Contributing to this was the Communist Party's diminishing influence resulting from growing Cold War political consensus. A "new look" approach to collective bargaining marked an era of harmonious labor-employer relations, which was highlighted by the 1960 Mechanization and Modernization Agreement. Virtually suspending existing work rules, it reduced the size of the labor force, provided no-layoff guarantees, and started a longshoremen retirement plan. Although company-ILWU cooperation generally prevailed throughout this period, ILWU politics remained leftist. The union strongly supported the civil rights actions of the 1950s, and in 1967 the ILWU passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

While the ILWU battled in the political trenches, the increasing rationalization of the maritime industry, which included the introduction of containerized shipping, led to a breakdown of the mechanization and modernization agreement. In 1971, the ILWU struck for 135 days, ending the period of company-union cooperation. The final agreement resulted in a substantial workforce reduction, and, as a result, in 1988 ILWU rank-and-file—seeking strength in numbers—voted to affiliate with the AFLCIO. The union's radical legacy and its continued democratic practices, such as electing its president by the full membership, placed the ILWU to the left of most AFLCIO unions.


Cherny, Robert W. "The Making of a Labor Radical: Harry Bridges, 1901–1934." Pacific Historical Review 64 (1995): 363–388.

Fairley, Lincoln. Facing Mechanization: The West Coast Longshore Plan. Los Angeles: Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, 1979.

Larrowe, Charles P. Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the United States. 2d rev. ed. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1977.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Strikes ; Trade Unions .

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International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union

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International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union