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International Longshore and Warehouse Union

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is a labor union which primarily represents dock workers won the West Coast of the United States, Hawai'i and Alaska; it also represents hotel workers in Hawai'i, cannery workers in Alaska and warehouse workers throughout the West. The union was established through the 1934 West Coast longshore strike, a three month-long strike that culminated in a four day general strike in San Francisco and the Bay Area.


The 1934 West Coast longshore strike

Longshoremen on the west coast ports had either been unorganized or represented by company unions since the years immediately after World War I, when the shipping companies and stevedoring firms had imposed the open shop after a series of failed strikes. Longshoremen in San Francisco, then the major port on the coast, were required to go through a hiring hall operated by a company union, known as the "blue book" system for the color of the union's membership book.

The Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party had both attempted to organize longshoremen, sailors and fishermen in the 1920s. The Communist Party's union never made much headway on the west coast, but did attract a number of former IWW members and other militants, such as Harry Bridges, an Australian-born sailor who became a longshoreman after coming to the United States. Those activists soon joined the International Longshoremen's Association, despite their reservations about its reputation for corruption and lack of militancy, when passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 led to a spontaneous explosion in union membership in the ILA among west coast longshoremen.

Those militants, known as the "Albion Hall group" after their usual meeting place in San Francisco, made contacts with like-minded activists at other ports. They pressed demands for a coastwide contract, a union-run hiring hall and an industrywide waterfront federation and led the membership in rejecting the weak "gentlemen's agreement" that the conservative ILA leadership had negotiated with the employers. When the employers offered to arbitrate, but only on the condition that the union agree to the open shop, the union struck every west coast port on May 9, 1934.

The strike was a violent one: when strikers attacked the stockade in which the employers were housing strikebreakers in San Pedro, California on May 15, the employers' private guards shot and killed two strikers. Similar battles broke out in San Francisco and Oakland, California, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. When the employers made a show of force in order to reopen the port in San Francisco, a pitched battle broke out on the Embarcadero in San Francisco between police and strikers. Two strikers were killed on July 6 by a policeman's shotgun blast into a crowd of picketers and onlookers.

When the National Guard moved in to patrol the waterfront the picketers pulled back. The San Francisco and Alameda County Central Labor Councils voted to call a general strike in support of the longshoremen, shutting down much of San Francisco and the Bay Area for four days, ending with the union's agreement to arbitrate the remaining issues in dispute.

The union won most of its demands in that arbitration proceeding. Those it did not win outright it gained through hundreds of job actions after the strikers returned to work, as the union gradually wrested control over the pace of work and the employer's power to hire and fire from the shipping and stevedoring companies. Union members also engaged in a number of sympathy strikes in support of other maritime unions' demands.

The March Inland and expansion to Hawai'i

The union commenced the "March Inland", in which it organized the many warehouses that received the goods that longshoremen handled, both in the ports themselves and further removed from them, shortly after the successful conclusion of the 1934 strike. The union eventually organized warehouses throughout the United States.

The union also led efforts to form Maritime Federation of the Pacific, which brought all of the maritime unions together for common action. That federation helped the sailors union win the same sort of contract after a long strike in 1936 that the ILA had achieved in 1934. Rivalries between the two unions, however, soon broke the federation apart.

The ILWU also established strong unions on the docks in Hawai'i during this time. In the next decase, despite the concerted opposition of the employers, the military and most of the political establishment, it also organized sugar and pineapple workers there. The ILWU's work changed the political climate in Hawai'i, breaking the hold on power that the white landed elite had exercised for half a century.

Joining and leaving the CIO

In 1937 the Pacific Coast district, with the exception of three locals in the Northwest, formally seceded from the ILA, renaming itself the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, after the ILA attempted to reorganize the existing locals, abandon representation of warehousemen and reverse the unions' policies on issues such as unemployment insurance. Harry Bridges was elected President of the new union, which quickly affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Bridges became the West Coast Director for the CIO shortly thereafter.

Bridges' star within the CIO began to wane, however, as the Communist Party began to lose ground within the CIO. When the CPUSA began to attack Roosevelt in the months after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, the CIO responded by abolishing the position of West Coast director of the CIO, limiting Bridges' authority to California.

Whether Bridges ever was a member of the Communist Party is not settled; the United States government ultimately lost every effort it made to deport Bridges, revoke his naturalization or prosecute him for denying that he was a member. The CIO, on the other hand, did not consider itself bound by the decisions of the courts or administrative agencies on this issue; after Bridges came out, along with other CP-allied labor leaders, against the Marshall Plan and for Henry Wallace's presidential campaign, the CIO expelled the ILWU in 1950 for being dominated by communists.

Survival outside the CIO and return to the AFL-CIO

Expulsion had no real effect, however, on either the ILWU or Bridges' power within it. The organization continued to negotiate agreements, with less strife than in the 1930s and 1940s, and Bridges continued to be reelected without serious opposition. The union negotiated a groundbreaking agreement in 1960 that permitted the extensive mechanization of the docks, significantly reducing the number of longshore workers in return for generous job guarantees and benefits for those displaced by the changes.

The agreement, however, highlighted the lesser status that less senior members, known as "B-men," enjoyed. Bridges reacted uncharacteristically defensively to these workers' complaints, which were given additional sting by the fact that many of the "B-men" were black. The additional longshore work produced by the Vietnam War allowed Bridges to meet the challenge by opening up more jobs and making determined efforts to recruit black applicants. The ILWU later faced similar challenges from women, who found it even harder to enter the industry and the union.

Bridges had difficulty giving up his position in the ILWU, even though he explored the possibility of merging it with the ILA or the Teamsters in the early 1970s. He finally retired in 1977, but only after ensuring that Louis Goldblatt, the long-time Secretary-Treasurer of the union and his logical successor, was denied the opportunity to replace him.

The Inlandboatmen's Union, whose members operate tugs, barges, passenger ferries and other vessels on the West Coast, and who had formerly been part of the Seafarers' International Union of North America , merged with the ILWU in 1980. The ILWU rejoined the AFL-CIO in 1988.

The ILWU today

The ILWU represents 42,000 members in over 60 local unions in the states of California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. An additional 3,500 members belong to the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, which constitutes the Union's Marine Division. Another 14,000 members belong to the autonomous ILWU Canada.

Jimmy Herman led the union from 1977 to 1991, when David Arian replaced him, followed by Brian McWilliams in 1994. James Spinosa defeated McWilliams in the election for ILWU President in 2000.

The ILWU's most notable recent action was in 2002, when it was accused of engaging in a purposeful slowdown of work on docks, as an alternative to a strike, to support its contract demands in negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association. The employers responded by threatening a lockout, which in turn enabled the Bush administration to seek a national emergency injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act against both the employers and the union. Opponents of the union have proposed moving longshore workers from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act to coverage under the Railway Labor Act, which would effectively prevent longshore workers from striking,

External sources


  • "Reds or Rackets, The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront," by Howard Kimeldorf ISBN 0520078861
  • "Harry Bridges, The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S.," by Charles Larrowe ISBN 0882080016
  • "Workers on the Waterfront, Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s," by Bruce Nelson ISBN 0252061446
  • "A Terrible Anger, The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco," by David F. Selvin ISBN 0861326102
Last updated: 05-23-2005 01:35:56