This is the story of a union. It concerns workers of all races and beliefs who came together with one single purpose: to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. It is the story of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, know worldwide as the ILWU. The history of the ILWU, the record of its origins and traditions, is about workers who built a union that is democratic, militant and dedicated to the idea that solidarity with other workers and other unions is the key to achieving economic security and a peaceful world.
The origins of the ILWU lie in the longshore industry of the Pacific Coast – the work of loading and unloading ships’ cargoes. In the old days of clipper ships, sailings were frequently unscheduled and labor was often recruited at the last minute by shoreside criers calling: "Men along the shore!" – giving rise to the term "longshoremen." The work was brutal, conditions unsafe, employment irregular, and the pay too low to support a family.
The first longshore unions on the West Coast were founded in the 19th century. By 1902 the longshoremen were loosely affiliated with the American Federation of Labor’s International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). But their ties to national headquarters were weak, and most returned or lost their charters within a few a years.
Over the next decade the longshore unions grew slowly. Each local was protective of its geographical jurisdiction and limited work opportunities, and none was eager to give up its autonomy to any federation. But in 1909, at a convention in Portland, Oregon, a loose-knit federation was established. They drew together primarily to fight the seamen who were doing more and more longshore work, and whose 1902 contract promised the shipoweners that seamen would work any ship whether or not the longshoremen who worked the vessel were unionized.
At the 1910 convention of this federation in San Francisco, the longshoremen decided to re-affiliate with the ILA – but only after T.V. O’Connor, then president of the ILA, made a personal plea for re-affiliation, and guaranteed autonomy for the newly chartered Pacific Coast District of the ILA. The locals were autonomous within the District and the District was autonomous within the International union.
Autonomy extended to local-by-local strike action and strike settlement, and the employers were able to capitalize on the divisions between the local union. They imported African Americans as strikebreakers against the white trade unionists, or diverted cargo away from a struck port to be worked by members of a different local. With the help of coordinated employers’ groups and cooperative police agencies, the shipowners used these tactics to divide and destroy longshore unions on the Pacific Coast in the strikes of 1916, 1919 and 1921. Genuine unionism was smashed for more than a decade.
These were the days of the shape-up, kickback, blacklist, goon squads, wage cuts, speed-up and staggering accident rate. Among the lessons the longshoremen learned from these defeats, to be recalled when they rebuilt their union in 1933, was that any discrimination weakens a union organization. They also came to understand the wisdom of the principles of worker unity, internal democracy, and international solidarity advocated by members of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – principles summed up in the famous IWW slogan that the new union would adopt, "An injury to one is an injury to all."