“I can’t stay home. I move the world’s cargo,” declared Rudy Moreno of Los Angeles/Long Beach ILWU longshore Local 13. His words were later memorialized in The Dispatcher, the union’s newspaper, in the January 2021 issue dedicated to Moreno and other members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who had already lost their lives to Covid-19 because they risked staying on the job. In the first year of the pandemic, as many as 40 ILWU longshore and several warehouse workers braving the risk of disease fell to Covid; as of today, some 50 ILWU members have died.
Early in the Covid pandemic, ILWU waterfront workers greeted and docked the 1,000-bed United States Naval Ship Mercy when it came to Los Angeles to help relieve the burden of the disease on local hospitals and medical facilities. And like many other workers in “front-line” industries whose ranks have been diminished by Covid’s ravages, ILWU longshore and warehouse members have continued to show up, to persevere through grueling round-the-clock shifts, and to risk their lives and health while moving and storing critical cargo—food, medicines, cars—that America depends on. In October 2021, current ILWU President Willie Adams met with President Joe Biden to address ongoing supply chain issues brought on by the disease. Since then, ILWU leaders have met repeatedly with public officials and shipping executives to help unjam pandemic-caused backups in West Coast ports.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, many “essential” workers have been publicly celebrated for their courageous efforts to keep hospitals and basic businesses functioning and the supply chain moving despite the perils of the Covid-19 pandemic. But celebrated or not, when workers have tried to unionize, their efforts have often been fiercely opposed. Despite some surprising successes in the 2022 organizing drives by employees at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple, workers’ gains in these industries have involved ferocious battles against entrenched company resistance.
Under its long-serving president, Robert McEllrath, the ILWU’s struggles over the past two decades, described in Labor under Siege: Big Bob McEllrath and the ILWU’s Fight for Organized Labor in an Anti-Union Era, reflect the difficulties faced by all unions in a challenging era for organized labor. Narrated in participants’ own words, this oral history will inspire workers in other industries now organizing and rejuvenating the American labor movement. With the ILWU’s long tradition of championing civil rights, social justice, equal opportunity, respect for diversity, and domestic and international labor solidarity, the union has endured numerous attacks going back to its founding in the 1930s. During the twenty-first century, the storied West Coast union has persevered despite serious threats from hostile corporations, government officials, and law enforcement agents. “As labor reasserts itself,” Laurie Mercier, professor of American history at Washington State University, recently wrote of Labor under Siege, “it can learn from those who recall the importance of effective leadership, maintaining solidarity locally and internationally, supporting social justice causes, and upholding the ILWU motto, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.'”
Harvey Schwartz is curator of the Oral History Collection for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union library in San Francisco. He is the author of The March Inland: Origins of the ILWU Warehouse Division, 1934-1938 and, with the University of Washington Press, Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU; Building the Golden Gate Bridge: A Workers’ Oral History; and, with Ronald E. Magden, Labor under Siege: Big Bob McEllrath and the ILWU’s Fight for Organized Labor in an Anti-Union Era.