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The roots of the International Longshoremen’s Association date to colonial America when the arrival of ships bearing goods from Europe was greeted with cries for “Men ‘long shore!” At first, the “longshoremen” who came to the ships were normally engaged in any number of full-time occupations, but left their work freely to unload the anxiously awaited and sometimes desperately needed supplies without compensation. As America began to develop a fledgling economy, and the ships increased, longshore work became a full-time occupation.

As the nation matured, many new immigrants congregated in the cities, hoping to find work, especially along the coast, where the bulk of business was still being done. The number of professional longshoremen grew by thousands.

By the early 19th century, the longshoreman of the day eked out a meager existence along the North Atlantic coast. Their working conditions were wretched and their wages pitiful. Many were new to the country and unfamiliar with the customs and language. Exploitation was the order of the day.

Thus, by mid-century, the longshoremen had begun to organize. In 1864, the first modern longshoremen’s union was formed in the port of New York it was called the Longshoremen’s Union Protective Association (LUPA).

While longshoremen in the United States had organized and conducted strikes before there was a United States, the ILA traces its origins to a union of longshoremen on the Great Lakes, the Association of Lumber Handlers founded in 1877, then renamed the National Longshoremen’s Association of the United States in 1892. It joined the American Federation of Labor in 1895 and renamed itself the International Longshoremen’s Association several years later when it admitted Canadian longshoremen to membership.

Organized and led by an Irish tugboat worker named Daniel Keefe, the organization had as many as 100,000 members on the Great Lakes, the East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf Coast in 1905. From the outset, Keefe faced significant challenges, most notably the outright hostility to unions of Chicago’s influential industrialists and the traditional anti-union leanings of longshore recruits from small Midwestern towns. Nevertheless, Keefe successfully expanded membership in the newborn union to include large numbers of dockworkers.

The late 19th century was a time of great economic upheaval which saw periods of almost full employment and union expansion followed by depression, lower wages, and intense competition for jobs. There were bitter divisions among the Irish immigrants and their “non-white” counterparts (“non-white” is the derogatory term then used to refer to Italian and Southern Mediterranean immigrants). These divisions were to some extent exacerbated and often exploited by business interests seeking to turn the unions against themselves. Various unions, such as LUPA and the Knights of Labor, competed with one another, and weak labor leadership was unable to resist increasingly powerful business interests.

Unions were broken. LUPA was disbanded before the start of the 20th century. But other labor unions fought back. There were countless wildcat and/or organized work stoppages resulting in violence and massive losses in wages. Between 1881 and 1905 there were more than 30,000 strikes.

In 1892, delegates from eleven ports convened in Detroit where they adopted the by-laws of the Longshoremen’s Chicago local and the name National Longshoremen’s Association of The United States. By 1895, the name was changed to International Longshoremen’s Association to reflect the growing numbers of Canadian members. Shortly thereafter, the ILA affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

As the start of the 20th century loomed, the ILA had approximately 50,000 members, almost all on the Great Lakes. By 1905, membership had doubled to 100,000, half of which were scattered throughout the rest of the country. ILA leaders focused on eliminating independent stevedoring firms and securing closed shop contracts. Keefe bargained with employers, guaranteeing uninterrupted work in return for badly needed improvements in working conditions and wage increases.

Daniel Keefe retired as President of the ILA in 1908, succeeded by another Great Lakes tugboat man, T.V. O’Connor. O’Connor’s presidency spanned twelve of the ILA’s most intriguing and influential years. In 1909, a bitter three-year strike on the Great Lakes pitted the employers’ Lake Carriers’ Association against every maritime union except the ILA, whose locals wisely voted against participation because it was clear to them from the beginning that the strike was a losing battle. So powerful and well equipped was the Lake Carriers’ Association that Lakes shipping ran almost regularly despite the union walk out. In the end, the ILA was almost alone on the Lakes.

For longshoremen nationwide, and especially for those in the Port of New York, this was an era of great contradiction, where landmark legal advances to protect the rights and safety of workers stood in stark contrast to the actual conditions for longshoremen. The United States was the only country with a large foreign commerce without any laws to protect the safety of its longshoremen. Even the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, which legalized strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing did little to improve actual working conditions for longshoremen.

The 1914 absorption of LUPA into the ILA prompted the creation of the ILA’s New York District Council and ignited an intense period of growth for the union both in terms of size and power. The organization of coastwise longshoremen in 1916 was a significant victory that greatly improved the ILA’s position at bargaining tables: shippers no longer had the option of diverting freight from striking ports along the Atlantic.

As the ILA grew, power shifted increasingly to the Port of New York, where the branch headquarters for the International were established. There, a man named Joseph Ryan was organizing longshoremen as an officer of the ILA’s New York District Council and in 1918, president of the ILA’s “Atlantic Coast District.”

In 1921, ILA president T.V. O’Connor resigned. Anthony Chlopek, the last of the Great Lakes presidents, was elected ILA International president and Ryan served as his First Vice president for the six years of Chlopek’s presidency. Perhaps the most significant development during Chlopek’s term was the institution of the Prohibition Enforcement Law. In direct contrast to its desired effect, Prohibition actually had a demoralizing, corrupting effect on society.

The ILA faced competition, particularly from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which had a number of members on the West Coast, where many workers moved into longshoring from other centers of IWW strength, such as the lumber and mining industries, and in Philadelphia, where the IWW remained a force after the prosecution and conviction of many of its leaders in 1919 largely destroyed the organization. The ILA survived, even after an open shop campaign on the West Coast and a failed strike in New York City in 1919 left it much weakened.

Joseph Ryan was elected International president in 1927. During the Great Depression, masses of unemployed workers flooded the market with cheap labor and company unions flourished. Then, encouraged by passage of New Deal legislation limiting the use of injunctions to prevent strikes and picketing (the Norris – La Guardia Act) and guaranteeing the rights of workers to vote for their own representation (Wagner Act of 1935), the union immediately began reorganizing and reclaiming lost ports.

Ryan and the union’s regional and local leaders regained much of the lost ground, but often at the cost of diminished centralization. Nonetheless, membership again soared, increasing as much as sixfold in as many years in some districts. But the process of rebuilding was not without hurdles. After the largely successful 83-day 1934 West Coast longshore strike, Pacific coast longshoremen voted to secede from the ILA and joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In the history of the ILA, the port of Baltimore, which was a sixth largest port in the world around the start of the 20th century, had a unique impact on the legacy of the Longshoremen’s Union. Unlike the Port of New York or Boston which were dominated by Irish and German immigrants, Baltimore’s stevedores and longshoremen were overwhelmingly Polish. In the 1930s about eighty percent of the Baltimore’s longshoremen were Polish or of Polish descent.[2] The port of Baltimore had an international reputation of fast cargo handling credited to the well-organized gang system that was nearly free of corruption, wildcat strikes and constant work stoppages unlike its other East coast counterparts. In fact, the New York Anti-Crime Commission and the Waterfront Commission of New York looked upon the Baltimore system as the ideal one for all ports.The hiring of longshoremen in Baltimore by the gang system dates back to 1913, when the ILA was first formed. The Polish longshoremen began setting up the system by selecting the most skilled men to lead them. This newly formed gang would usually work for the same company, which would give the priority to the gang. During the times where there was no work within the particular company, the gang would work elsewhere, or even divide to aid other groups in their work, which would speed up the work and would make it more efficient.[3] In an environment as dangerous as a busy waterfront, the Baltimore’s gangs always operated together as a unit, because the experience let them know what each member would do at any given time making a water front a much safer place.[4] At the beginning of the Second World War Polish predominance in the Port of Baltimore would significantly diminish as many Poles left to fight the war.

The spirit of rebirth continued as World War II created a commercial boom. Following the war, the ILA was at its peak, with wages and membership up. Ryan was elected “Lifetime President,” an honorary title reflecting his stature and prominence in the union. Unfortunately for Ryan and the ILA, the union’s toughest battle loomed in the near future.