On June 12, 1886, longshoremen working on ships docked on the Seattle waterfront walk off the job, leading to negotiations and then acceptance of the Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union of Seattle. Longshoremen are dock workers responsible for unloading and loading ships, balancing weight loads, and stowing cargo in densely packed ship holds – a critical and dangerous undertaking. Three months earlier, in March 1886, longshoremen in Tacoma had unionized, following in the footsteps of longshoremen in Portland, Oregon, who had organized in 1878. The 1886 longshoremen’s strike in Seattle followed a three-day strike two years earlier and then two years of stalled talks over workers’ demands for representation. A total of 88 men sign the new union charter; the first meeting will be held on June 14, 1886. The union will last about a decade before it is replaced by the Longshore Union of the Pacific, an affiliate of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILU). In 1952, the ILU will merge with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
The Life of a Longshoreman
In the late nineteenth century, before containerized shipping and cargo cranes made their ubiquitous appearance in West Coast port cities, Seattle's central waterfront abounded with workers who catered to the needs of dock owners, vessels, and their crews. There were "longshoremen, gang bosses, hatch tenders, winch drivers, donkey drivers, boom men, burton men, sack-turners, side runners, front men, and jitney drivers" ("Longshore Workers and Their Unions"). What ships carried and when they loaded and off-loaded were newsworthy topics; the local newspapers were filled with ship arrival and departure information.
Longshore workers were the ones who loaded and unloaded the ships, "a highly skilled line of work that involves careful balancing and weight management within ship holds" ("Longshore Workers and Their Union"). The term came from the hiring bosses who stood on the docks and yelled out "Men along the shore!" as they scrambled to hire workers to load or unload cargo. Stevedore was the term applied to the men who managed the loading and unloading operation.
In the 1880s, working on the piers meant long hours, dangerous conditions, corrupt hiring bosses, and poverty-level wages. Labor bosses often chose family members or the brawniest workers over those more experienced. An inequitable and humiliating practice was known as the daily shape-up, where "workers had to ask for employment each morning, and jockey against each other for a job for the day. Additionally, employers could speed up the work site by employing fewer workers, making the remaining employees work harder. They were also able to retaliate against non-compliant workers through a company union that kept track of workers with an employee 'blue-book'" ("Longshoremen Workers and Their Unions").
Organizing the Union
Very few trades had unionized in Puget Sound during the 1880s. Seattle printers were first, organizing in 1882, followed by Mosquito Fleet marine engineers in 1883, and then farmers and miners in King and Pierce counties. The Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union was created in 1886 in response to a wage dispute between longshoremen and the corporate shipping giant, Pacific Coast Steamship Company. Headquartered in San Francisco, Pacific Coast Steamship began serving the Seattle-Alaska route in 1881. In 1884, longshoremen in Victoria were being paid 50 cents an hour, but those serving Washington ports received only 30 cents. "On October 22, 1884, fifteen Seattle longshoremen demanded wage parity with Victoria men. They vowed not to set foot on Pacific Coast Steam's Umatilla until paid 50 cents an hour. Captain James Carroll and Stevedore Boss Lorenzo Garrison refused to bargain with strikers. After staying out three days, the longshoremen returned to work at the 30-cents-an-hour rate. The first recorded cargo worker strike on Puget Sound had failed" (The Working Longshoreman, 5).
After two years of stalled talks, in which workers demanded union recognition, another strike was held in 1886 when Seattle longshoremen serving the ships Lily and Argile walked off the job. An account written by local union historian Ron Magden told the story: "The unionists sent A. J. Wilson and Terry King to see Pacific Coast Steamship Wharf Manager, Willian Van Waters. Wilson and King carried an ultimatum: grant a pay increase from 30 to 40 cents an hour, union recognition and control of dispatch by a man elected by SL&RU members ... When the wharf manager reneged on including Seattle dock hand truckers in the agreement, the Stevedores, Longshore and Riggers Union refused to work the Pacific Coast Steamship’s Queen of the Pacific and the Portland. After three days, the bosses acceded to the demands of the unionists" ("Seattle Longshore Celebrates 125th Anniversary of Union’s Founding").
The longshoremen's place "at the fulcrum of cargo transportation between land and sea gives longshore workers a crucial position in global and national economies" ("Longshore Workers and Their Union"). Tacoma longshoremen had organized over similar wage issues three months earlier, on March 26, 1886.
The inaugural meeting of the new union was held on June 14, 1886; Harry Nelson presided. Still stinging from the inequities of the shape-up system, "in one of its first acts, the fledgling union created a record book of 88 members in good standing. The president dispatched workers in alphabetical order -- cycling through the whole list, A to Z, then starting over -- to assure equal opportunity" (Fryer). Many of the original 88 members are buried together in Washelli Cemetery in north Seattle, a poplar tree marking each gravesite.
In 1889, a handful of union members led by president Robert Merritt wrote to the Seattle mayor and city council requesting permission to build a small structure, 25 feet by 30 feet, at the foot of Main Street on the west side of Railroad Avenue to serve as a reading room and union headquarters. The petitioners felt that "such a place would be of great benefit not only to the members of this Union but to all persons requiring the loading and unloading of freight along the wharves and especially to those doing business along the water front in furnishing a place where men can be easily found when wanted, by those who may desire this kind of work done and where orders can be left for such service. We would further represent that such a place would be for the benefit of men following [an] arduous occupation where they can spend time, not engaged at work, in reading, as they prepare to keep this place well supplied with newspapers and such books as they can secure for moral and intellectual improvement of the members of this Union" (Petition from Longshoremen Union).
It appeared that permission was granted with the proviso that the building be removed if the council requested it. The union set aside $5,700 for construction costs. The structure was dismantled in 1900, reason unknown.
Equitable Job Distribution
The Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union lasted about a decade before it became the Longshore Union of the Pacific. This group was affiliated with the larger International Longshoremen’s Association. After several decades of contention and competitiveness, the ILU and a rival group, International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, merged in 1952. The group name was later shortened to International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Despite its short history, one of the guiding principles of the Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union – a fair and equitable distribution of jobs – was still a union hallmark more than a century later. In 2000, a reporter’s visit to the Seattle headquarters of ILWU Local 19 found that, "Twice a day, before the morning and night shifts, the union dispatcher doles out jobs to the men who have pegged in. He does this by moving a special peg down the rows of names, a little like a game of cribbage. If a stevedoring company needs a gang of eight, the dispatcher advances his peg through the workers who are pegged in until he has eight. At the start of the next shift, the dispatcher will resume where he left off, counting through workers who have pegged in until all jobs are assigned. When he's run through the whole list he starts over at the top. On a given job board, assignments are made without considering seniority or skill. That way, every union member gets the same chance" (Alex Fryer).