International Longshoremen’s Association Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The work of longshoremen–loading and off-loading ships–plays a vital role in moving goods into the marketplace. The International Longshoremen’s Association has helped these workers attain better pay and working conditions.

Daniel Keefe, a tugboat worker from Chicago, formed the first local (chapter) of the Association of Lumber Handlers in 1877. Facing hostility from Chicago industrialists, he worked to improve working conditions and wages for dock workers. Membership in the local grew, and other midwestern locals were organized. In 1892, delegates from eleven ports met in Detroit, adopted the bylaws of the Chicago local, and took the name National Longshoremen’s Association of the United States. Because of increasing Canadian membership, the name was changed in 1895 to International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), and that year the union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At the end of the century, the ILA had approximately fifty thousand members, and by 1905, membership had doubled. In 1911, there were more than 307 locals, and more were forming at ports on the East, West, and Gulf Coasts. The ILA actively recruited members and formed locals in the Port of New York City, the largest in the country by cargo handled and number of longshoremen.International Longshoremen’s Association

The emblem of the International Longshoremen’s Association, from around 1901.

(Library of Congress)

As the union grew, power shifted from the Midwest to the Port of New York. Joseph Ryan, JosephRyan from New York Local 791 became ILA president. Under Ryan’s presidency, the union continued to grow but also experienced major problems. In 1934, West Coast longshoremen revolted against the ILA and formed a new union. Consequently, the ILA lost a significant number of members, as well as its power on the West Coast.

In New York, a wage agreement negotiated by Ryan was not accepted by union members, prompting a walkout. In 1951, Ryan renegotiated a larger wage increase that was also rejected. The resultant strike lasted eleven days. A wage increase above that in Ryan’s agreement was one outcome of the strike; the other was an investigation of the ILA. New York governor Thomas Dewey, ThomasDewey ordered a full investigation of the ILA by the state crime commission. Scandals;International Longshoremen’s AssociationHearings were highly publicized, and the media portrayed the waterfront as being run by criminals. The Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront (1954) provided graphic images of gang activity and rampant corruption on the docks. Although the union worked to eliminate the criminal elements, it was suspended from the AFL in August, 1953. The AFL created the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen (IBL) to replace the ILA, but longshoremen voted to stay in the ILA.

When the IBL was dissolved in 1959, the ILA was readmitted to the AFL. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, union president Thomas “Teddy” Gleeson, Thomas “Teddy”Gleeson negotiated a series of contracts that acknowledged the advent of automation and containerization. He developed rules on containers, guaranteed annual income, and job security programs. Although the amount of cargo handled on the docks continues to increase as a result of containers and new technology, the number of union members has decreased. However, in a global economy, technology-enhanced longshoremen remain essential to worldwide commerce.

Further Reading
  • Kimeldorf, Howard. Battling for American Labor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.


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Categories: History