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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s People on the Move Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Container System At Work on the Waterfront Negotiating Change Transforming the Landscape
17: Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960–1970

Negotiating Change

Longshoremen realized that containerization would change their world. Since 1937, longshore work on the West Coast had been performed by members of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). By the 1960s, both the union and the shipping companies, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, recognized that containerization would drastically cut the number of cargo-handling jobs. Would longshoring survive?

Harry Bridges: Getting a Piece of the Machine

A charismatic and controversial union leader, Harry Bridges was president of the ILWU from 1937 until 1977. Born in Australia, Bridges became a longshoreman in San Francisco and won the loyalty of maritime workers after leading them through the bloody labor strike of 1934. In the 1960s, the issue of mechanization put Bridges’ leadership to the test, both with shipowners and with his own union members.

Bridges saw that mechanization was inevitable, but that it could also make longshore work safer and easier. While some jobs would be lost, Bridges wanted to make the best deal possible for longshoremen, to get them “a piece of the machine.”

“We should accept mechanization and start making it work for us, not against us.”
—Harry Bridges
Harry Bridges leading longshoremen in a Labor Day parade, San Francisco, 1939
Harry Bridges leading longshoremen in a Labor Day parade, San Francisco, 1939
Harry Bridges listening to ILWU members in San Francisco's Local 10 hiring hall, about 1960
Harry Bridges listening to ILWU members in San Francisco's Local 10 hiring hall, about 1960
Otto Hagel photograph, Center for Creative Photography,
The University of Arizona Foundation
Cartoon, from the ILWU newsletter The Dispatcher
Union cartoons
Union cartoons
Cartoons from the ILWU newspaper, The Dispatcher, reflect the anxieties of longshoremen facing the mechanization of their jobs in the 1960s.

The M&M Agreement

In 1960, after more than a year of intense negotiations, shipowners and longshoremen’s representatives signed a landmark labor agreement. The Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) Agreement allowed shipping companies to continue introducing laborsaving machines and got rid of old work rules that had become inefficient. It also gave longshoremen a 35-hour workweek and other benefits. And it created a $29 million pension fund, built by contributions from the shipping industry, to encourage longshoremen to retire early.

Hiring Hall vs. Steady Men

From the strike of ’34 came the hiring hall, replacing the old “shape-up,” where men often had to bribe their way into jobs. Longshoremen reported to the hall every morning to get work, knowing that the union would assign jobs fairly.

Containerization threatened this system. By the mid-1960s, shipping companies were investing heavily in container ships, cranes, and other shoreside facilities. They wanted to select and train the men who would operate the machines, and to employ them regularly as “steady men.” This proposal would create elite workers, effectively blocking jobs from some union members. Many longshoremen were prepared to fight.
Local 10 longshoremen Herb Mills (left) and Peter H. Brown working in the hold of a ship, 1960s.
Local 10 longshoremen Herb Mills (left) and Peter H. Brown working in the hold of a ship, 1960s.
Container crane
Container crane
Containerization brought an end to the working gangs of conventional longshoring. Crane operators work alone in cabs high above the pier. Their job requires superior hand-eye coordination and concentration, for which they are among the highest-paid workers on the docks.
Longshoreman's work shirt
Worn by Herb Mills during his 30-year career as a member of
ILWU Local 10, San Francisco
Longshoreman's work shirt
Longshoreman's hardhat
Longshoreman's hardhat
Longshoremen, working in container yards and in the holds of modern freighters, wear hard hats for protection. Herb Mills credits this hat with saving him from serious injury.
Longshoremen's Time Book
During this week in 1964, Herb Mills attended safety school and unloaded coffee, cars, and hides for the United Fruit, Matson, and
Pacific Far East lines.
Longshoremen's Time Book
White cloth cap
White cloth cap
Called the “West Coast Stetson,” this cap was traditionally worn by both longshoremen and sailors. It made men working in the dark holds of ships more visible to operators of deck machinery. Since containerization, the white hat is worn only in parades and for other ceremonial purposes, but it remains a symbol of West Coast maritime labor.

The Strike of ‘71

In 1971 ILWU members voted to strike rather than accept the terms of the proposed labor contract, especially the “Steady Man” clause. Against the advice of Harry Bridges, their longtime leader, the longshoremen shut down shipping on the West Coast for more than 130 days. The strike ended in February 1972 when the two sides reached a settlement amid pressures from lawmakers. The rank and file gained little, and shipping companies secured the right to employ “steady men.”
The cargo hook and fist became a symbol of opposition in the 1971 strike.
ILWU Union Pin
ILWU Union Pin
The fist and cargo hook logo was adopted by ILWU longshoremen who voted to strike in 1971. Since then, the logo has been widely used as a symbol of the ILWU and appears on pins, clothing, and posters.
Cargo hook for general use
The cargo hook is the longshoreman’s most basic tool. Although it is not used when loading containers on a ship, it remains the
symbol of longshoring.
Cargo hook for general use

Gains and Losses

How did ILWU longshoremen fare in the container revolution? Many people believe there were few alternatives and that Harry Bridges got the best deal possible for union members. The pension fund eased the transition into retirement for many, while those who remained received job security, higher wages, and a cleaner, safer working environment. Others believe that the union gave up too much, including its sense of identity.

“The extraordinary strength of the Union had been built . by the social relationships that had been fashioned amongst the members by reason of the hiring hall and the nature of the work.. And we lost that one with the 9.43 [‘Steady Man’ clause].”
—Herb Mills, ILWU longshoreman
Launch Video
Containerization transformed cargo handling and shipping operations. In this video, retired Longshoremen describe how their work and lives were changed by the container revolution.
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