The Longshore Way

At a time when most union action is perceived as press-ganging members to get out the vote or get to a rally, the Longview protests look like something out the ILWU’s origins in the tumultuous 1930s.

The union’s cohesiveness comes from its particular history. The 1934 San Francisco general strike won the hiring hall for all longshore locals on the West Coast. Known to members simply as “the hall,” it replaced the managerial favoritism and bribery of the shape-up with a system in which the union decides dispatch procedure.

Union members, paid by the employers but elected by the rank and file, divvy out the jobs according to the union’s rules.

Leal Sundet, an ILWU coast committeeman, attributes the union’s ability to mobilize 400 people at a moment’s notice to the hall. Hundreds come there to obtain their work every day. They talk about life, and issues facing the union.

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The Longshore Way

The hall also gives workers a measure of autonomy mostly lost for other workers.

“If I wake up in the morning and decide I don’t want to work, I just don’t go down to the hall,” Sundet said. “There’s no penalty for that.”

Add a bred-in disdain for employers to the potent combination of freedom and daily rank-and-file socialization, and the union’s militancy becomes a little clearer.

“People know what they have,” said Sundet, “and they’re willing to do anything it takes to hang onto it. We always have. Our union was born of the struggle.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #391, October 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.