Dockworkers in America
Dockworkers in America
- Peter ColePeter ColeDepartment of History, Western Illinois University
The history of dockworkers in America is as fascinating and important as it is unfamiliar. Those who worked along the shore loading and unloading ships played an invaluable role in an industry central to both the U.S. and global economies as well as the making of the nation. For centuries, their work remained largely the same, involving brute manual labor in gangs; starting in the 1960s, however, their work was entirely remade due to technological transformation. Dockworkers possess a long history of militancy, resulting in dramatic improvements in their economic and workplace conditions. Today, nearly all are unionists, but dockworkers in ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts belong to the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), while the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) represents them in Pacific Coast ports as well as in Hawaii and Alaska (along with British Columbia and Panama). In the mid-1930s, the ILA and ILWU became bitter rivals and remain so. This feud, which has cooled slightly since its outset, can be explained by differences in leadership, ideology, and tactics, with the ILA more craft-based, “patriotic,” and mainstream and the ILWU quite left wing, especially during its first few decades, and committed to fighting for racial equality. The existence of two unions complicates this story; in most countries, dockworkers belong to a single union. Similarly, America’s massive economy and physical size means that there are literally dozens of ports (again, unlike many other countries), making generalizations harder. Unfortunately, popular culture depictions of dockworkers inculcate unfair and incorrect notions that all dockworkers are involved with organized crime. Nevertheless, due to decades of militancy, strikes, and unionism, dockworkers in 21st-century America are—while far fewer in number—very well paid and still do important work, literally making world trade possible in an era when 90 percent of goods move by ship for at least part of their journey to market.
- Political History
- Labor and Working Class History