International Longshore and Warehouse Union

International Longshore and Warehouse Union
Founded August 11, 1937 (1937-08-11)
Legal status 501(c)(5) labor organization[1]
Headquarters San Francisco, California, United States[1]
33,270 (2014)[2]
Robert McEllrath[1]
Subsidiaries International Longshore & Warehouse,
Pacific Longshoremen's Memorial Association[1]
Affiliations Canadian Labour Congress
Revenue (2014)
Expenses (2014) $5,980,052[1]
Employees (2014)
Mission To unionize workers.[1]

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is a labor union which primarily represents dock workers on the West Coast of the United States, Hawaii and Alaska, and in British Columbia, Canada. It also represents hotel workers in Hawaii, cannery workers in Alaska, warehouse workers throughout the West and bookstore workers in Portland, Oregon. The union was established in 1937 after the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, a 3-month-long strike that culminated in a 4-day general strike in San Francisco, California, and the Bay Area. It disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on August 30, 2013. In 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle described the ILWU as "the aristocrat of the working class; a top member can earn over well over [sic] $100,000 a year with excellent benefits", with vacancies receiving thousands or sometimes even tens of thousands of applications.[3]

The 1934 West Coast Waterfront 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 an 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 5 by a policeman's shotgun blast into a crowd of picketers and onlookers. This incident is known as Bloody Thursday and is commemorated every year by ILWU members.

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 through the mechanism of hiring halls.[4][5] Union members also engaged in a number of sympathy strikes in support of other maritime unions' demands.

ILWU 1971 strike

Main article: ILWU 1971 strike

The March Inland and expansion to Hawaii

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. This "March Inland" was crucial in improving the working conditions and quality of life with each union it assimilated. For example, the Weighers' and Warehousemens' Union was one such union based in Oakland, California, that became a part of the ILWU, and prior to the assimilation "warehouse workers suffered low wages, high job insecurity and frequent speed-ups." [6] Happening during the Great Depression, this March Inland helped many workers without much power to have greater control in their working environments because they were now part of a greater and more powerful entity.

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 Hawaii during this time. In the next decade, 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 Hawaii, confronting the hold on power that the Big Five had exercised for half a century.

The ILWU backed the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union (CAWIU), a communist-controlled union headquartered in San Jose. CAWIU had considerable success organizing farm and cannery workers in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere in California until it was suppressed in 1934 by the state of California following sustained attacks by business, political and reactionary forces which, in San Jose, resulted in an atmosphere of terror.[7]

Joining and leaving the CIO

On August 11, 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.

The United States government 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 A. 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, and disaffiliated with it in 2013.[8]

Disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO

The ILWU disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on August 30, 2013, accusing the AFL-CIO of unwillingness to punish other unions when their members crossed ILWU picket lines and over federal legislative policy issues.[9]

The ILWU in recent years

Membership (US records)[10]

Finances (US records; ×$1000)[10]
     Assets      Liabilities      Receipts      Disbursements

The ILWU represents 42,000 members in over 60 local unions in the states of California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. An additional 4,000 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. With respect to employment in West Coast ports the employer and the union maintain the hiring halls gained through an arbitration following the strike of 1934. According to the union:

[...] the principles embodied in the ILWU hiring hall have bound together workers who have sought equal opportunity to work under safe conditions at a fair wage. The hiring hall has always been more than a place where jobs are dispatched. It is where earnings and work opportunity are equalized, and jobs are distributed in a fair and democratic system untarnished by prejudice or favoritism.[4]


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 current International President is Robert McEllrath, a Longshore worker from Local 4 in Vancouver, WA, who was elected in 2006 and reelected in 2009.

1999 representation election

On April 22, 1999, the ILWU won a representation election for more than 300 workers at the gigantic Powell's bookstore chain headquartered in Portland, Oregon. The workers there became ILWU Local 5.

2002 slowdown and lockout

The ILWU was accused of engaging in a slowdown of work on docks in 2002, as an alternative to a strike, to support its contract demands in negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association. The union has documented that productivity was in fact stable at that time, while the employer claims to have contradictory data. The employers responded to the slowdown with a lockout, disallowing the workers to do their jobs. The Bush administration sought a national emergency injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act against both the employers and the union, and threatened to move 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. (This is a long-time goal of the PMA and other companies whose workers the ILWU represents[11]

The Longshore Contract that resulted from 2002 negotiations expired on July 1, 2008. The ILWU and the PMA reached a tentative agreement for a new 6-year Longshore Contract in July 2008. In the following weeks, the ILWU membership voted to approve the new contract.

2008 May Day work stoppage

Longshore worker and crane operator Al Webster joined the Seattle march on May 1, 2007 to call for an end to the Iraq war.

In protest of the Iraq War, the ILWU encouraged longshore workers to "shut down all West Coast ports" by walking off the job on May 1, 2008, to "make May Day a 'No Peace, No Work' holiday." On May 1, more than 10,000 ILWU members from all 29 West Coast ports voluntarily stopped work, with some attending rallies held by the ILWU where the union called for working-class people to withhold their labor to protest the war. The employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, filed a complaint against the Union for conducting what it saw as an illegal work stoppage. The court agreed with the PMA and determined that the ILWU had conducted a "secondary boycott" against the PMA, which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.[12]

2014 Israeli ship standoff

In August 2014, the Israeli-owned ZIM Piraeus was the subject of a major demonstration at the Port of Oakland instigated by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC). Approximately 500 protesters opposed to Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip participated.[13] The AROC claimed to have been supported by ILWU dockworkers who refused to unload the ship's cargo, stating that "Workers honored our picket and stood on the side of justice." However, the union denied this saying it had taken no position on the conflict in Gaza "but in cases when unsafe circumstances arise … the union must protect the safety of its members in the workplace." An ILWU spokesman said workers were not prepared to become involved because of safety issues related to the size of the demonstration and the heavy police presence. However, several news reports and blogs claimed that some members from ILWU Locals 34 and 10 openly supported the protesters. On August 21, the Piraeus docked at a different terminal, where two dozen longshoremen unloaded the cargo overnight.[14][15]

2014–2015 negotiations

After expiration of its contract with the Pacific Maritime Association July 1, 2014[5] months long contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association were characterized by backups in West Coast ports and mutual accusations of a slowdown. Base pay was about $35 an hour.[16] In Southern California, the slowdown caused more than twenty-five cargo ships to idle off the coast, effecting over 700 mariners, primarily Overseas Filipino Workers.[17] The conflict caused Tesla Motors to airlift cars rather than shipping them, costing millions of dollars.[18]

See also



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Form 990: Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax". International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Guidestar. December 31, 2014.
  2. US Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards. File number 000-202. Report submitted March 26, 2015.
  3. Carl Nolte: When S.F. waterfront was scene of bloody riots. SFGate, July 5, 2014
  4. 1 2 "The hiring hall -- the heart and muscle of the ILWU". Retrieved February 13, 2015.
  5. 1 2 Robert Brenner and Suzi Weissman (August 6, 2014). "Unions That Used to Strike". Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved February 13, 2015.
  6. "The ILWU Story".
  7. Glenda Matthews (November 20, 2002). Silicon Valley, Women, and the California Dream: Gender, Class, and Opportunity in the Twentieth Century (trade paperback) (1 ed.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 53–64. ISBN 978-0804747967. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  8. "ILWU disafilliates from AFL-CIO". International Longshore and Warehouse Union. 29 August 2013. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  9. "Longshore Union Pulls Out of National AFL-CIO." Associated Press. August 31, 2013. Accessed 2013-08-31.
  10. 1 2 US Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards. File number 000-202. (Search)
  11. Mongelluzzo, Bill. "(Ports) No help from Washington: congressional action to rein in the ILWU would face long odds" Journal of Commerce Week November 04, 2002
  12. "".
  13. "Demonstration on U.S. dock prevents workers from unloading Israeli ship". San Francisco Star. 19 August 2014. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
  14. Blocked Israeli cargo ship in Calif. unloads after deking activists, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), August 21, 2014.
  15. Israeli ship’s U-turn back to Oakland thwarts protesters by Dan Pine, Jweekly, August 21, 2014.
  16. Erik Eckholm (February 12, 2015). "Simmering Labor Fight Brings Crippling Delays to West Coast Seaports". The New York Times. Retrieved February 13, 2015.
  17. Nash, James (6 March 2015). "Sailors stuck at sea turn to basketball and beer". The Salt Lake Tribune. Bloomberg. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  18. "Tesla Motors (TSLA) Earnings Report: Q1 2015 Conference Call Transcript". TheStreet. 2015-05-07. p. 14. Archived from the original on 2015-05-11. Retrieved 2015-05-11.

Further reading

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