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This Day in Labor History: August 11, 1937

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On August 11, 1937, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union formed, under the leadership of the radical Australian immigrant Harry Bridges. The ILWU would set the pace for how a leftist union could show leadership through the rest of the 1930s and well into the Cold War era when communist-led unions were being destroyed.

Longshoremen work was among the hardest of all jobs in the early twentieth century. Longshoremen came to the docks every day in hope of getting chosen to work every day. The “shape-up” shamed workers and lowered wages by bringing out everyone who needed a job. The system led to kickbacks and corruption. As labor historian Irving Bernstein wrote, “Aside from slavery itself, it is difficult to conceive of a more inhuman labor market mechanism than the shape-up.”

Longshoremen had unionized from the early twentieth century. As early as 1902, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) had chartered locals on the west coast. But it was primarily an east coast union. Moreover, it was quite politically conservative and had long-developed ties to organized crime. West coast longshoremen had developed a more radical culture and had only loose connections to the ILA. There were lots of IWW members or sympathizers on the docks. The globally-oriented work and the traveling that often went along with it–or if not traveling yourself, meeting sailors from around the world–gave the work culture there a decidedly internationalist look based on strong ideas of global solidarity.

Harry Bridges was an Australian who went to sea at the age of 16. He first reached the United States in 1920 and joined the IWW in 1921. He didn’t stay in that organization long, but he did develop a strong belief in militant unionism based on direct-action politics. In 1922, he left the sea and started working as a longshoremen. He was blacklisted for a few years in the mid-1920s for joining the ILA, but returned to the docks in 1927 after he agreed to join the company union, which was a common response to real unionism across the economy in the 1920s. In 1933, the ILA returned to the docks and in 1934, Bridges became the leader of the epic San Francisco longeshoremen’s strike, which turned into a general strike and, although the union lost, the creation of New Deal labor mediation meant that the government ruled in favor of the workers and a real union came to the west coast docks. Bridges was the leader of this organization.

The ILA was happy to have west coast locals, but it was extremely unhappy to have Harry Bridges as the leader. They hated him. They hated the direct democracy and militancy practiced by these workers. So in 1937, it attempted to reorganize the west coast locals, taking power out of the hands of the workers, rejecting its embrace of unemployment insurance as a major demand, and eject the warehouse workers from the union entirely. In response, on August 11, the west coast workers, again led by Bridges, withdrew from the ILA and began the ILWU. Only a few ports did not follow Bridges here–Tacoma, most notably, which stayed in the ILA until 1958. The ILWU voted immediately to affiliate with the new CIO, led by John L. Lewis and dedicated to the industrial organizing radicals such as Bridges so valued.

The ILWU became perhaps the most democratic union in the American labor movement, with most decisions made at the local level. Although never a particularly large union, it did a lot of solidarity work, helping to organize many other sectors of the economy, ranging from manufacturing work to the entertainment industry. It forced rank-and-file members to do most of the organizing, with the international only coming in later, which was quite opposite to the top-down professional organizing model quickly adopted by most unions.

The ILWU did not develop into a perfect union. While some locals–especially in the Bay Area–developed quite sophisticated views about solidarity and acted upon them, including, as time went forward, refusing to unload cargo that would help the South African apartheid regime, as well as working closely with the Black Panthers in Oakland, others–Portland and Los Angeles–used their direct democracy to ensure white supremacy in their ranks. Bridges was such a believer in democratic unionism that he refused to intervene in a meaningful way in these white supremacist locals, even as he rejected their politics.

Still, the ILWU played a huge role in left unionism for decades. In 1946, the year before Taft-Hartley announced the end of the classic period of union organizing and with the Red Scare directly targeting Bridges, who may or may not have been a member of the Communist Party but who certainly worked closely with the CP, the union still managed to lead the nation in solidarity actions. That year, it played a big role in the creation of the Committee for Maritime Union, which was an coordinating organization between many sea-based unions on both coasts. Harry Truman had just busted a railroad strike by threatening to draft all the strikers. He then threatened to do the same if the CMU struck, saying that the Army would load the ships and the Navy would run then. In response, the ILWU used its many friends internationally. With friends in ports across the world, it was able to get public announcements that those nations’ longshoremen unions would declare any such cargo scab-loaded and refuse to handle it, tying up the United States’ shipping globally. The Truman administration had no way to counter such a threat. Not only did it withdraw a threat, but it came to an agreement with the CMU that vastly raised wages for workers and kept the union hiring hall, a central tenet of ILWU politics.

In 1948, the ship owners again tried to bust the ILWU, this time by trying to get Truman to use Taft-Hartley provisions to repeal everything it had gained in the previous decade. Taft-Hartley had explicitly ruled out union hiring halls. So the National Labor Relations Board forced the ILWU to be the guinea pig in another of the new Taft-Hartley provisions–a required vote on employers’ “last offer,” which was to put pressure on workers to accept whatever was offered them. Bridges and other leaders instead called for a vote that rejected the NLRB’s mandated vote entirely. Membership unanimously agreed and boycotted it. A strike then began, where the employers had one goal–getting rid of the “communist” leadership. Once again, the union’s members stood tall and finally management caved completely. There would be attempts to deport Bridges for years, but the ILWU remained remarkably strong. Over time, it started losing members to automation and containerization. Its response was to realize what was coming and in exchange for accepting that inevitable fate, negotiate gargantuan contracts for its members, with possibly the best wages and benefits of any blue-collar work in the United States.

Though much smaller than it once was, the ILWU remains a very real part of life on the west coast today. It continues to engage in solidarity actions–including fighting police violence against communities of color–and striking when necessary.

For more on the ILWU, see Harvey Schwartz’s Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU and Peter Cole, Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.

This is the 324th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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