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Maritime Labor

The case for locating the container story on the West Coast was strengthened by other factors as well. Settings in America on the Move are meant to immerse visitors in a specific time and place, a moment in history when something changed or something out of the ordinary happened—when a transportation issue divided a community, a conflict simmered, a good idea was embraced, the unintended consequences of a decision were revealed, a community’s identity was tested. The introduction of container technology was one such “moment,” and the response by longshoremen of the West Coast’s ILWU (International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union) had all the ingredients of a good story—conflict, charismatic leaders, money, and more.

Harry Bridges, who had led the union since its founding in 1937, realized that the container revolution was inevitable. On behalf of the ILWU, Bridges negotiated a labor agreement that was meant to compensate longhoremen for lost jobs and wages resulting from containerization and other mechanized cargo-handling techniques.

Harry Bridges, ILWU President
Harry Bridges listening to union members in San Francisco’s Local 10 hiring hall, about 1960
Local 10 longshoremen Herb Mills (left) and Peter H. Brown working in the hold of a ship, 1960s.

Local 10 longshoreman Herb Mills and his partner Peter H. Brown at work in the hold of a break-bulk ship in the 1960s. Cargos in these ships were packed in sacks, bales, boxes, and barrels, or were handled individually, as in the case of heavy machinery. It often took a week or more to load or discharge cargos in conventional freighters. Containerization greatly reduced, but did not eliminate, all break-bulk operations.

Cartoon, from the ILWU newsletter The Dispatcher
In the 1960s and ’70s, longshoremen were concerned that they would be replaced by container-handling machines.
Longshoreman's work shirt
Longshoremen wear the logo of the ILWU on working clothes, like this shirt, to express their occupational and union identity. The organization was sorely tested during the transition to containerization in the 1960s and ’70s.
ILWU Union Pin
The cargo hook is the tool associated with conventional longshoring. When ILWU members voted to strike in 1971, they adopted the hook and fist as their symbol of opposition to the labor contract, which had been negotiated by their leader, Harry Bridges.
Button, 'Longshore Victory'
This button was worn by longshoremen during the 1971 strike, which lasted 130 days and affected all West Coast ports. One of the key issues involved changes in work practices that allowed shipping companies to employ container crane operators on a permanent basis. Union members believed this special treatment violated a core value of the union, which had always stood for the fair rotation of all waterfront jobs among union members.
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