Solidarity Stories

An Oral History of the ILWU

Harvey Schwartz

  • Published: 2009
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History
  • Bibliographic information: 352 pp., 50 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Contents

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, born out of the 1934 West Coast maritime and San Francisco general strikes under the charismatic leadership of Harry Bridges, has been known from the start for its strong commitment to democracy, solidarity, and social justice. In this collection of firsthand narratives, union leaders and rank-and-file workers - from the docks of Pacific Coast ports to the fields of Hawaii to bookstores in Portland, Oregon - talk about their lives at work, on the picket line, and in the union.

Workers recall the back-breaking, humiliating conditions on the waterfront before they organized, the tense days of the 1934 strike, the challenges posed by mechanization, the struggle against racism and sexism on the job, and their activism in other social and political causes. Their stories testify to the union's impact on the lives of its members and also to its role in larger events, ranging from civil rights battles at home to the fights against fascism and apartheid abroad.

Solidarity Stories is a unique contribution to the literature on unions. There is a power and immediacy in the voices of workers that is brilliantly expressed here. Taken together, these voices provide a portrait of a militant, corruption-free, democratic union that can be a model and an inspiration for what a resurgent American labor movement might look like. The book will appeal to students and scholars of labor history, social and economic history, and social change, as well as trade unionists and anyone interested in labor politics and history.
Harvey Schwartz is an oral historian at the Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University, and curator of the Oral History Collection, ILWU Library.

"Harvey Schwartz is the dockworkers' Studs Terkel. Solidarity Stories is right up there with the best of Terkel's books, an inspiring account in their own words of how the men and women working the Pacific Coast docks and beyond built a great union and won dignity and fair pay on the job. Schwartz's oral history is so well organized and fully annotated that it rises to the level of a genuine history of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union."
-David Brody, professor emeritus, University of California, Davis

"An engaging and revealing story about the 'making' of one of our country's most democratic and progressive unions - a story of the past that speaks powerfully to the challenges facing labor today."
-Howard Kimeldorf, University of Michigan


1. Longshore: The San Francisco Bay Area
Harry Bridges: The Beginning of the Union, 1924-1933
Harry Bridges: The Coming of the Big Strike, 1933-1934
Harry Bridges: Victory in 1934
Sam Kagel: Union Advocate, 1934
Bill Chester: Civil Rights Leader
Cleophas Williams: African American President
Whitey Kelm: Red-Hot Union Man
Sam Kagel: Coast Arbitrator, 1948-1999
Herb Mills: The Asbestos War, 1972-1978

2. Longshore: The Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors
Rough Conditions Before the Union, 1923-1934
Conflict and Triumph, 1934
The Mexican American Struggle, 1934-1960
Walter Williams: Fighter for African American Equality, 1943-1970
Two White Guys Oppose Discrimination, 1937-1949
Bill Ward: Sixty-five Years with the Union

3. Longshore, Shipboard, and Bookstores: The Pacific Northwest and Canada
Marvin Ricks: The 1934 Strike in Portland
Union Struggles in North Bend and Coos Bay, Oregon, 1920-1940
Valerie Taylor: Auxiliary President, 1949-1973
Jerry Tyler: Seattle Activist
Phil Lelli: Longtime Tacoma Leader
Ike Morrow: Tacoma's Soul Train Engineer
Defeat and Victory in Canada, 1935-1966
The Inlandboatmen's Union Joins the ILWU, 1978-1987
Mary Winzig: The Powell's Books Organizing Drive, 1998-2000

4. Warehouse and Cotton Compress: California
The "March Inland" in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1934-1938
Sam Kagel: Representing the Union, 1934-1939
Brother Hackett: Rank-and-File Activist, 1936-1939
Billie Roberts Hendricks: Union Pioneer, 1936-1951
Making It Work in Southern California, 1936-1950
Unionists Fight for Racial Justice, 1942-1960
LeRoy King: The Equal Rights Struggle and Labor Politics
Cotton Compress in the Central Valley, 1937-1938
The ILWU Enters the Valley, 1951-1952

5. Agriculture: Hawaii
Carl Damaso: Union Herald, 1930-1940
Jack Hall: Islands Organizer, 1934-1951
Louis Goldblatt: The ILWU Takes Root, 1943-1946
Frank Thompson: Field Organizer, 1944-1946
Louis Goldblatt: Cold War Battles, 1947-1960
The New Union and the Island of Lanai, 1946-1947
Victory at Lanai in 1951
Ah Quon McElrath: Union Social Worker
Abba Ramos: Filipino Activist, 1946-1959

6. Politics: The Old Left
Keith Eickman: Idealism and Disappointment
Jack Olsen: Activist and Educator
Don Watson: Union Stalwart

Epilogue: "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All"
Harry Bridges and Bill Moyers: An Old Slogan

A Note on Sources
Further Reading

"The book is accessible and would be excellent for classroom use. The rich narratives of waterfront work, democratic unionism, and interracial organization in Solidarity Stories will make the book interesting to a wide range of readers."
-Jess Rigelhaupt, Oral History Review, Fall 2011

"An accessible and engaging account of one of the most progressive and democratic unions in the American labour movement and the men and women who worked along the North American west coast and in Hawaii throughout much of the twentieth century."
-Left History

"Frst person narratives that are sometimes enlightening, often inspiring, and always genuine."
-Labor Studies Journal

"What emerges most clearly is the loyalty and pride of ILWU members and the enormous impact the union had on the lives of American workers-in wages and pensions, yes, but also by giving workers a voice in their workplaces and a sense of dignity, power, and respect."
-The Western History Quarterly

"...this is a study that encapsulates organizational endeavor, the day-to-day humiliations that provided a fertile soil for organization, and how the union stood tall for racial integration and fairness. Above all, it is a story of success, a success that can be measured by what happens to longshoremen after they retire."
-International Journal of Maritime History

"In showcasing these personal historical vignettes, Schwartz reinforces how oral history can be used to enrich traditional historical scholarship and highlights another way in which Solidarity Stories is a useful resource for public historians."
-The Public Historian

"This book is a welcome addition to the labor history of the West."
-Oregon Historical Quarterly

"What does labor solidarity mean? This book tells us. These oral histories are a great starting point for anyone trying to understand how unions, when inspired and led by working people themselves, can help to improve the human condition."
-Michael Honey, Tacoma News-Tribune

"Solidarity Stories is a remarkable achievement. Workers give gripping testimony about the conditions they hoped to change, and explain how they did it. We hear how the union was organized and how it functioned, from those who built it. We see the crucial role strikes and democracy played in that process. And Schwartz is unafraid to look at the politics of the union's leaders, including activists and black workers fighting racism."

"Those seeking first-person accounts of key people and incidents in the organization's making will be delighted by the vivid recollections it collects."
-Oregon Historical Quarterly

"There appear to be three overarching themes in the oral history testamony: first, the union's long record of success in winning good wages, benefits, and job security for its membership; second, the left-wing politics of many of the union's leaders; and finally, a strong and consistent commitment to racial equality. . . . What gives the book its undeniable power is the colloquial eloquence of the rank-and-file voices that fill its pages."
-Bruce Nelson, Labour/Le Travail