Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The 1971 ILWU Strike: 130 Days to Victory


ILWU button (courtesy “Strike of ’71” America on the Move exhibit, Smithsonian Collection)



News Coverage of the 1971 Strike


Here is a complete day-by-day record of the strike -- more than 160 articles that appeared in the ILWU Dispatcher, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Each article has been digitized and is fully readable. Below are some of the headlines from the Dispatcher


July 2, 1971


July 30, 1971


October 1971


by Ashley Lindsey

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) 1971 strike was the longest in the union’s history. For one hundred and thirty days, ports all along the west coast were brought to a standstill as workers demanded a fair contract from their employers, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). Those one and thirty days were sandwiched around an eighty day "cooling off period" ordered by the Nixon administration. Altogether the conflict lasted more than six months. It ended in victory for the ILWU and secured that union's position on the docks for a full generation [1]

The strike came at a time when labor was facing both political opposition and a harsh economic climate. In an industry facing increased mechanization and a shrinking workforce, many union members were worried about the future. As a result, the 1971 longshore strike was a fight for job security in the midst of very uncertain times.

In Seattle, the two daily newspapers, the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer, covered the events of the strike, as did the ILWU’s bi-monthly newspaper, the Dispatcher. The coverage by these news sources both revealed and shaped public opinion regarding the strike. The Times and P.I. opposed the strike, although the Times tended to favor employers while the P.I. leaned toward the union. In stark contrast, the Dispatcher was adamantly pro-strike. The 1971 strike was devastatingly long, and the ILWU leadership used the Dispatcher to increase solidarity and support for the strike within the union.

Understanding the ‘71 strike requires knowledge of the relationship and history of the ILWU and the PMA. According to a framework developed by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, there are three types of union power that shaped the relationship between the ILWU and their employers: Associational power, workplace bargaining power and marketplace bargaining power. For decades, the ILWU maintained a strong sense of solidarity because of its democratic government and industrial unionism. The IlWU’s use of the hiring hall encouraged fairness in hiring and socialization between members while waiting for work. [2] This gave the union large amounts of associational power, which is the power that results from “the formation of collective organization of workers.” [3]

The union had also gained workplace bargaining power, defined as the extent to which “a localized work stoppage in a key node can cause disruptions on a much wider scale than the stoppage itself.” [4] Being able to stop cargo from moving in or out of the country gave the ILWU considerable leverage over the economy, both by stopping international trade and by keeping essential goods from reaching businesses and consumers.

However, in the years leading up to the 1971 strike, the ILWU had been suffering substantial losses in its marketplace bargaining power, which is the power a union gains from conditions in the labor market. [5] This was a direct result of the introduction of technology, specifically containerization, and the weak economy of the early 1970s. During most of the ILWU’s history, longshore work was break bulk cargo. Break bulk cargo are goods shipped by boxes, pallets, or other individual units instead of packaging them all together in containers. [6] For longshoremen, shipping this kind of cargo required a large number of workers willing to perform a dangerous job. For employers, it was costly, labor intensive, and slow. [7] Technology was introduced to automate and mechanize longshore work, the adoption of which the ILWU initially opposed, fearing job loss. However, in the 1950s, employers faced strong global competition for business as governmental contracts from World War II became less plentiful and many saw automated longshore work as a way to cut operating costs and gain competitiveness. [8]

When it began to look like the government might become involved supporting the integration of new technology, “the union…concluded that new methods and machines would be introduced no matter how great the effort by the membership to resist change.” [9] Seeing that change was inevitable, the union began to negotiate to offset the lost jobs with benefits for union members. The ILWU and PMA negotiated the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement (M&M), which took effect on January 1st, 1961. In this contract, the PMA was allowed to introduce technology under the premise that longshore workers received “higher wages, annual wage guarantees, pensions, early retirement schemes, and job maintenance guarantees, except under attrition and during economic slowdowns.” [10]

In the early 1970s, the American economy was weakening. The Vietnam War “had led to an inflationary spiral that seemed uncontrollable,” and unemployment had begun to rise, partly as defense spending slowed. [11] This combination of high inflation and unemployment was called stagflation, and President Nixon feared it would cost him the 1972 election. [12] Additionally, technology reduced the number of workers needed in the longshore industry while also increasing longshoremens’ demand for work. These two factors, mechanization and a weak economy, created labor market conditions that weakened the ILWU’s marketplace bargaining power. The resulting loss of job security stemmed from the combination of the technological change from the M&M Agreement and stagflation in the economy.

By 1970, the ILWU had become dissatisfied with the M&M Agreement. In its proposal for a new contract, the union asked for a two-year contract, a work opportunity guarantee, no layoffs, wage increases, elimination of extended shifts, a $500 per month pension and retirement for those who worked more than twenty-five years, expanded medical and dental coverage, ten days paid vacation, exclusion of non-registered longshoremen from work, and the elimination of the M&M plan. [13] During the negotiations, the PMA countered this offer with substantially lower skill differential wage increase and four days paid vacation. Throughout months of negotiation sessions beginning on November 16th, 1970, the two sides argued and struggled to come up with a “settlement position that [could] be recommended to the rank and file.” [14] As the expiration date of the old contract, July 1st, 1971, drew closer, tensions rose on both sides. Although hoping for a negotiated settlement, the ILWU prepared for a fight by bolstering union solidarity to strengthen the ILWU’s associational power. The Dispatcher used language like “the specter of unemployment,” called job security “a fundamental right,” and referred to compulsory arbitration as “a form of serfdom” –all to generate support in case the union went on strike. [15]

At the end of June, the ILWU and the PMA submitted their proposals for new contracts. Neither side was willing to compromise on the issues of wage increases, paid holidays, and, most importantly, job security. Job security was a crucial point for the ILWU because after the controversial 1961 M&M Agreement, there was disagreement within the union as to whether the ILWU should have accepted such a deal. As a result of the M&M agreement, many longshore workers lost their jobs. These included casual workers and also some B-men (apprentice union members).[16] With that lesson in labor negotiations and job loss, the union would not accept any settlement without a guarantee of work for its members. After negotiations failed to produce a viable compromise, the ILWU took a strike vote in which ninety-six percent of the membership was in favor of a strike. [17]

On July 1st, the ILWU began its first strike in twenty-three years. Every port along the West Coast was shut down as longshore workers walked out. [18] Both the Seattle Times and the Seattle P.I. ran stories on the front page about the strike. The business-friendly Times article was titled “Longshore Strike Ties Up Port,” emphasizing in bold print that commercial ships were loaded before the strike began. The P.I.’s headline read, “Longshoremen Set West Coast Strike for Today,” and included information about the number of longshoremen out of work, a detail the Times did not include. These contrasting news stories demonstrate the conflict between those supporting business and those supporting labor.

For nearly two months, negotiations between the PMA and ILWU were at a stalemate. During this period, President Nixon announced wage and price controls intended to stop rampant unemployment and inflation. For ninety days, no wage increases could be implemented, and after that period federal regulations determined any increases. [19] Nixon’s policy weakened the associational power of the ILWU as wage increases would now pass through governmental regulations instead of being directly bargained by the union. In the Dispatcher, ILWU president Harry Bridges said the negotiators would “vigorously condemn the Presidential Order” which would “have a definite adverse effect on possible negotiations seeking to end our current longshore strike, and [placed] the burden of fighting inflation on the workers.” [20]

The freeze on wage increases would not be the last time President Nixon would become involved in the longshore strike. As the strike neared the end of its second month, the ILWU submitted another proposal, compromising on the hours B-men were to be guaranteed, but demanding higher wage increases than in their previous offer. [21] As September began, negotiations resumed, and on September 15th, President Nixon directed Curtis Counts of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to join the talks. [22] Counts was known for his ability to resolve labor disputes quickly, and his presence represented the federal government’s strong interest in ending the strike as quickly as possible. [23]

In addition to the introduction of a federal voice to the negotiations, President Nixon also met with Harry Bridges and Ed Flynn of the PMA in Portland, Oregon on September 26th, 1971., [24] Although the meeting was a brief twenty minutes, it demonstrated that Nixon was ready to intervene if necessary. Both sides promised a settlement within a week, but it was becoming clear that the President was ready to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to put an end to the strike. Passed in 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act gave “the president of the United States…the power to intercede in strikes with the right to impose a mandatory eighty-day ‘cooling-off’ period, thus formally enlisting the president in the strikebreaking process.” [25]

When the International Longshore Association (ILA)––the union representing longshore workers on the East Coast––went on strike four days after the Portland meeting, it served as a catalyst for the invocation of Taft-Hartley. Nixon stated that in the event of an ILA strike concurrent with an ILWU strike, “Taft-Hartley [would be] automatically…applied, because then the damage [would] be very great.” [26]

There was little doubt that the strike harmed an already ailing American economy. Newspapers like the Seattle Times and P.I. had been reporting the costs of the strike, leading public opinion to favor of a resolution to the strike. Although there were slight differences in the sympathy showed to the strikers, both newspapers protested the stalemate more than either party’s actions. The P.I. reported that strike was responsible for “a $16 million impact on the Seattle area in its first month alone,” and The Times said that tens of thousands of jobs were in danger.[27], By focusing on the financial costs of the strike and the implications it had for a country already suffering from high inflation and unemployment, both papers demonstrated the desire many shared for the strike to end.

Although the strike adversely affected the economy, the ILWU claimed that these developments were not so great that they constituted a national emergency. In the Dispatcher, Harry Bridges argued that there was no need for federal intervention in the labor dispute. The ILWU permitted shipments like military cargo, relief cargo for Pakistani refugees, and perishable cargo in an effort to minimize the negative impacts of the strike. [28] Bridges wrote that “[President Nixon] originally stated that there was no emergency affecting the health and safety and national welfare on the Pacific Coast,” and that “the claim that there is a dire national emergency…is just not so.” [29]

On October 4th, with the ILA on strike and the ILWU unable to deliver a settlement, President Nixon created a Taft-Hartley Board of Inquiry in the West Coast strike. Two days later an eighty-day injunction began, requiring ports to reopen. Nixon’s injunction was a significant blow to the ILWU’s associational power, as it removed the union’s ability to strike. The injunction also reduced ILWU workplace bargaining power by removing the ILWU from its position at the crucial junction of reception and distribution of maritime cargo. Not surprisingly, the injunction did not sit well with the union. The ILWU’s lawyers argued that “there was no emergency that imperiled national ‘health and safety’-pointing to the continuous movement of military and other vital cargoes and the fact that ports were open in British Columbia, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.” [30] Ordered back to work by a district court judge, the ILWU reluctantly returned to the docks.

While longshore workers resumed work, there was still no contract. The ILWU and PMA had agreed upon having a two-year contract that included a $0.72 wage increase, thirty-six hours of guaranteed work for A-men, and eighteen for B-men, employer contributions to the welfare fund and a pension plan. However, there was still disagreement over rules regarding containers, liability and eligibility for work guarantees, dental and prescription drug plans, manning, grievance machinery, holidays, and the employment of steady men skilled in operating the new machinery. [31]

By the time union members were forced back to work, they were more than four months into their strike. The ILWU Welfare Fund was depleted and workers faced financial hardships as the strike dragged on. [32] The state of Washington also faced economic problems as a result of the labor dispute. Governor Dan Evans said, “if [the strike] is not settled it will be very bad for the state in terms of lost markets,” and “he doubted many shipping companies would send new ships to the area…for fear of having them tied up by continuation of the walk out.” [33] As the eighty-day injunction drew to a close and the PMA submitted its last offer, the leadership on both sides was acutely aware of the economic pressures on union members and port owners.

On December 1st, 1971, the PMA submitted its last offer for settlement. The offer was “almost exactly the same as the final package on the table when talks broke off October 4.” [34] The ILWU membership voted on the proposal, and overwhelmingly rejected it. As the expiration of the Taft-Hartley injunction drew closer, negotiations stalled again. The ILWU extended their contract past the injunction deadline in a last minute attempt to salvage talks. [35] An agreement was reached on the important issue of container jurisdiction when Harry Bridges met with the president of the Teamsters Union, with whom the ILWU was fighting for union jurisdiction, which “[paved] the way towards settlement between employers and longshoremen.” [36]

Despite the effort of both sides to come to a settlement, negotiations remained at an impasse. When the contract extension ended on January 17th, 1972, the ILWU went on strike once again. The ILWU, the PMA, and the media predicted that the second round would be briefer than the first, either as a result of federal intervention or simply because some issues were already agreed upon. [37] Government intercession seemed likely when the PMA announced a policy disallowing the loading of military cargo headed to Vietnam. The employers feared that the extra work would allow union members additional income and prolong the strike. With only a “minute fraction of Asia-bound military cargo…able to move from the West Coast,” this all but ensured government involvement in ending the strike. The PMA policy was terminated only two days after being made publicly known. [38]

Four days after the resumption of the strike, President Nixon called on Congress to pass legislation that would introduce arbitration to “‘swiftly and decisively’ put a stop to the West Coast dock strike and end its ‘appalling human costs.’” [39] The Republican governors of two West Coast states, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California and Gov. Dan Evans of Washington, also thought it imperative for Congress to pass arbitration legislation as quickly as possible. In a Seattle P.I. article, the governors accused Congress of not responding out of a lack of concern for the West coast. Gov. Evans went as far as to say that “Congress would act and would act promptly…if this was an East Coast strike.” [40]

Eager to reopen ports and get union members back to work, both the PMA and ILWU were open to the possibility of arbitration. Harry Bridges testified before the House and Senate Labor Committees, arguing against compulsory arbitration saying the legislation would be “the Trojan Horse to open the door to an all out attempt to destroy the transportation unions in the United States.” [41] He and Ed Flynn however, agreed to voluntary arbitration in the event that a settlement could not be reached, although there was still disagreement over which issues would be arbitrated. [42] West Coast Arbitrator Sam Kagel later joined the negotiations as a mediator. [43] Congress finally passed arbitration legislation on February 7th, but it proved to be too late to have any real effect. By February 8th, 1972, both sides reached a tentative settlement, and after a vote by the membership of the ILWU, a majority of 71 percent voted in favor of the agreement, officially ending the long and arduous strike of 1971.

The new seventeen-month contract gave the union much of what it wanted. Most importantly, the ILWU gained job security as part of the settlement. A pay guarantee of thirty-six hours for A-men and eighteen hours for B-men was implemented in the contract. The new contract also included an expansion of medical benefits, life insurance, pensions, and the introduction of a prescription drug and dental plan that included both members and their dependents. Regarding container jurisdiction, the ILWU won the right to a fifty-mile zone inside which they would have authority of containers. New regulations were created to resolve concerns surrounding issues like steady men and grievance machinery. [44]

The ILWU did not receive any paid holidays, and the new contract included lowering the compulsory retirement age from sixty-nine to sixty-five. This was a continuation of the top-down workforce shrinkages implemented in the 1961 M&M Agreement. Additionally, the Pay Board implemented by President Nixon rejected the wage increases in the contract, saying “the proposed adjustment of wages and salaries submitted by the PMA and ILWU [are] unreasonably inconsistent with the general wage and salary standard” and denied their request for approval. [45] This reduced the wage increase from 15.7 percent to 10 percent. [46]

The ILWU’s strike contended with a hostile labor environment that included governmental antiunion policies, a weak economy, downsizing due to new technology, and competition from other unions like the Teamsters. Even in this difficult climate, the union’s crucial demand of job security was gained in the contract through pay guarantees for both A- and B-men. The ILWU proved that it was still powerful enough to produce a contract that both provided for and protected the union’s members while allowing ports to remain competitive. On a national scale, the 1971 strike demonstrated that the American labor movement was still alive. Even a painful one hundred and thirty day strike was not enough to break the solidarity of the ILWU.


©Ashley Lindsey, 2011
HSTAA 353 Spring 2011

[1] “Strike of ’71,” America on the Move, (accessed May 14, 2011,)

[2] Levi, M., D. Olson, J. Agnone, and D. Kelly. "Union Democracy Reexamined." Politics & Society 37, no. 2 (2009): 203-28.

[3] Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13.

[4] Silver, Forces of Labor, 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "Glossary of Maritime Terms." 2009. Accessed May 23, 2011.

[7] Schwarz-Miller, Ann, and Wayne K. Talley. "Technology and Labor Relations: Railroads and Ports." Journal of Labor Research 23, no. 4, 513-33.

[8] Schwarz-Miller and Talley, Technology and Labor Relations.

[9] Schwarz-Miller and Talley, Technology and Labor Relations, 523.

[10] Schwarz-Miller and Talley, Technology and Labor Relations, 524.

[11] Rorabaugh, W. J., Donald T. Critchlow, and Paula C. Baker. "The Tumultuous Years: Nixon-Ford-Carter, 1968-1980." in America's Promise: a Concise History of the United States, Vol. 2. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 634.

[12] Ibid.

[13] "Demands Presented to PMA," Dispatcher, November 20, 1970.

[14] "Caucus Prepares For Fight," Dispatcher, May 7, 1971.

[15] "Time to Tone Up the Muscles," Dispatcher, January 8, 1971.

[16] The ILWU uses a three tier system of membership and work allocation. Full members are A class and they have the first claim on work. B class members pay partial dues and have second claim. Casual workers are eligible for jobs not claimed by either A or B men.

[17] "Dockers Vote 96% For Strike," Dispatcher, July 2, 1971.

[18] Pacific Maritime Association, "Strike of 1971" timeline. Accessed May 2, 2011.

[19] Rorabaugh, Critchlow, and Baker, America’s Promise, 634.

[20] "Strike Continues on All Items, Including Wages; ILWU Opposes Pay Freeze," The Dispatcher, August 27, 1971.

[21] Pacific Maritime Association, "Strike of 1971"

[22] Ibid.

[23] Wolfgang Saxon. "J. Curtis Counts, 83, Nixon Friend and Labor Mediator Who Averted Conflicts." The New York Times, July 7, 1999. Accessed May 23, 2011.

[24] Carter, Glen, ed. "Dock Strikes: East, West, New Threat Has B.C. Uneasy, Talks Prodded but No Progress." The Seattle Times, September 28, 1971, A16 sec.

[25] Fantasia, Rick, and Kim Voss. “An Exceptionally Hostile Terrain." In Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, 52. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

[26] Bridges, Harry. "On the Beam: Strategy Under T-H." Dispatcher, October 8, 1971.

[27] Page, Don. "Dock Strike Cost May Hit $16 Million." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 15, 1971, A1 sec; Birkland, Dave. "Dock Strike Threatens 10,000 Jobs Here." The Seattle Times, August 15, 1971, A6 sec..

[28] Ibid.

[29] “On the Beam”

[30] "Now It's Taft-Hartley!," Dispatcher, October 8, 1971.

[31] Pacific Maritime Association, "Strike of 1971;" "Status of Longshore Negotiations as of October 4," The Dispatcher, October 22, 1971.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Carter, Glen, ed. "Pacific Coast Longshoremen Return to Work." Seattle Times, October 9, 1971, B4 sec.

[34] Dispatcher. "Parties Resume Talks." December 7, 1971.

[35] "Dockers Will Stay on Job until Jan. 10," Seattle Times, December 23, 1971, A1 sec.

[36] "Dock Strike Hits Seattle and Coast," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1972, A5 sec.

[37] Pa ge, Don. "Dockers Walk Off Here, At 23 Other Ports." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1972, A1 sec.

[38] "Struck Dock Employers Ban Military Cargo, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 19, 1972, A1 sec; Pacific Maritime Association, "Strike of 1971"

[39] "Nixon Rips Solon On Dock Inaction," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 1972, A1 sec.

[40] "Congress Scored On Dock Delay,." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 2, 1972, A1 sec.

[41] "Coast Dock Agreement," Dispatcher, February 11, 1972.

[42] "Bridges Offers To Arbitrate If Talks Fail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 1972, A1 sec.

[43] ”Coast Dock Agreement.”

[44] "Summary of Longshore Pact," Dispatcher, February 24, 1972.

[45] Pacific Maritime Association, "Strike of 1971"

[46] Ibid.