On January 7, 1958, International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) vice president Germain Bulcke installs the charter of ILWU Local 23 representing Port of Tacoma longshore workers. Local 23 is the last major West Coast longshore local to affiliate with the ILWU, which was organized in 1937 by Harry Bridges (1901-1990).
Tacoma longshore workers were the first in Washington to form a local union, doing so in March 1886, a few months before Seattle dockworkers organized their first local. By the 1930s, Tacoma longshore workers had made significant gains. Locals 38-3 and 38-30, the two Tacoma locals of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), were the only large longshore locals on the Pacific coast to enjoy closed shop status, in which the union had complete control of dispatching workers to job assignments. In most other ports at the time, employers, not the union, chose who worked and could select non-union workers.
The 1934 Strike
Tacoma longshore union leaders, including Paddy Morris and Jack Bjorklund, played major roles in the historic 1934 waterfront strike in which the ILA joined with all other maritime unions to close every major West Coast port for 85 days. The 1934 strike was a significant labor victory, as federal arbitrators awarded the union not only significant wage gains but also joint control with employers over dispatching dock workers. (The Tacoma locals were exempted from the joint control ruling, retaining the full control they already had.)
Following the victory, a growing rivalry developed in the ILA's Pacific Coast District between the existing leadership, which included Tacoman Paddy Morris as secretary-treasurer, and a group led by San Francisco local president Harry Bridges, a young Australian-born dock worker who rose to prominence in the 1934 strike. In 1935, District president William Lewis and Morris survived election challenges from Bridges and his ally Hugh Adams. However, in 1936, Lewis and Morris stepped aside and Bridges became District president.
Bridges and the ILWU
One year later, Bridges made a deal with John L. Lewis (1880-1969), who had recently formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a rival to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to bring the Pacific Coast longshore unions from the AFL to the CIO. (The two federations would unite in 1955 as the AFL-CIO; by then the ILWU had been expelled from the CIO and was an independent union; it later joined the AFL-CIO). Pacific Coast District members voted 12,079 to 3,479 in favor of Bridges' proposal to leave the AFL-affiliated ILA and form an new union to be named the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. Although the overall vote in favor of the ILWU was overwhelming, most of the majority came from a few large ports: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and San Pedro (Los Angeles and Long Beach). Tacoma and more than 20 smaller locals opposed the move, although most soon entered the ILWU.
Tacoma longshore workers debated the issue strenuously but ultimately decided to remain with the ILA and AFL. In part, they wanted to continue their close relations with other AFL unions in Tacoma. They also expressed concerns about Bridges and the CIO, both frequently accused by employers and the mainstream press of ties to communists, and Lewis, whose leadership style they distrusted. The ILWU made attempts throughout the late 1930s to become the bargaining agent for all West Coast longshore workers, and to bring Tacoma into the ILWU, but the Tacoma workers were successful in keeping the ILA as their representative.
Tensions between the rival longshore unions remained high during the 1940s. When the ILWU struck in 1946 and 1948, Tacoma workers did not join the strike, although they ended up receiving the same wage increases. Tensions eased in the early 1950s. With work scarce at the Port of Tacoma, ILA members in Tacoma made an agreement in 1952 with Seattle ILWU Local 19 that allowed Tacoma workers to travel to Seattle and other ILWU ports for jobs. After a year, the ILWU requested that Tacoma vote on joining the ILWU. The vote failed and the traveling program ended, but support among Tacoma workers for joining the larger longshore union continued to grow.
In 1956, Tacoma workers attended contract negotiating sessions with the ILWU and agreed to join in if the ILWU struck. In 1957, the Tacoma local chose to leave the AFL-CIO and accepted an invitation to combine its pension and benefit programs with the ILWU. By the end of the year, Tacoma longshore workers finally voted in favor of seeking a charter from the ILWU.
On January 7, 1958, Tacoma Local 23 met for the first time. ILWU vice president Germain Bulcke installed the new local's charter before an audience that included 80 Local 19 members from Seattle as well as many current and retired Tacoma dock workers. With that meeting, the last large Pacific Coast longshore local became part of the ILWU, more than 20 years after Bridges founded the union. Some smaller locals remained with the ILA for another two decades. The last holdout, Grainliners' Local 1892 in the Longview area, merged with ILWU Local 21 in 1981.