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date: 17 August 2017

Dockworkers in America

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The history of dockworkers in America is as fascinating and important as it is unfamiliar. And yet, those who work along the shore loading and unloading ships play an invaluable role in an industry central to both the United States and global economies. They possess a long history of organizing, 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 & 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, albeit somewhat less so in recent years. This feud grew out of leadership conflicts, divergent ideologies, and different organizational tactics. Throughout its history, the ILA has been craft-based, “patriotic,” and mainstream, while the ILWU positioned itself on the political left, especially during its first few decades, and is committed to fighting for racial equality. The existence of two unions complicates the history of dockworkers in the United States; in most other countries, dockworkers belong to a single union, if any. 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 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 then in the previous century—very well paid. And they still do important work, literally making world trade possible in an era when 90 percent of goods bought and sold still move by ship for at least part of their journey to market.