A Brief History: International Longshoreman's Association
The International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), Local 1422 is a powerhouse labor union of Port of Charleston dockworkers.
With a historically and predominantly African American membership and leadership, this group of politically engaged skilled tradespeople have been a stalwart of Black labor power.
For generations, the Local 1422 has played a pivotal role in Charleston, national politics, and global struggles for safer, more secure, more equitable, and more dignified work for all people everywhere—and by extension a better life.
The ILA at a glanceInternational African American Museum
It is said that water has memory. Similarly, dockers at the Port of Charleston embody the living legacy of Black labor, ingenuity, and collective
It’s not lost on members of the Local 1422 that their enslaved ancestors were once the “cargo” imported through the very port where they work.
Kidnapped from their homelands because of their knowledge and skills, approximately 40% of all enslaved Africans entered through the Port
Decades after emancipation, shipping companies continued to recruit Black workers with advertisements specifying “Colored Longshoremen Wanted.” Those companies aimed to relegate Black people to difficult and dangerous physical labor that others wouldn’t do.
“Backbreaking” is a common descriptor for this type of work back then and still is to this day. Dockworkers spend hours hauling heavy pallets in the dampness of the shoreline season after season.
But the workers flipped it— by redefining the meaning of the work and by challenging the expected power dynamics of race and labor.
Longshoremen consider hard work a virtue. The value of industriousness was and still is instilled from a young age oftentimes directly by parents, grandparents, and other relatives who entered the guild first, followed by the younger kin.
The work also became a pathway for greater income and the potential for supervisory roles for African Americans.
Workers also consolidated power by organizing against the owning class of shippers. The owners had more money but the workers had each other and direct contact with the goods being transported. So workers leveraged those advantages to facilitate or stall shipments.
In 1868, Black waterfront workers founded ILA’s predecessor, the Longshoremen's Protective Union Association (LPUA). Like other Reconstruction Era organizations, it sought to better the lives of its members by demanding an end to discrimination, better wages, and better hours.
Unfortunately, also like those other organizations at that time, LPUA eventually suffered as the economic success of the port declined and influence of the union waned. In the early 20th century, the Port of Charleston had recovered and Black dock workers organized once again
This time under the American Federation of Labor (AFL)’s International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). As a mostly African American local, struggles ensued within the larger ILA organization whose leadership tended to be white.
The Local 1422 devoted their efforts at the nexus of Black freedom struggles and labor rights, with a combination of autonomy and collectively with the international association.
In 2000 a clash with law enforcement thrusted the Local 1422 into international labor politics when police arrested five union members on felony charges.
They were among hundreds of protestors rallying against the Danish shipping company, Nordana, that employed non-union workers to bust the union. Decidedly anti-union local politicians aligned themselves with the company and deployed law enforcement to intimidate the crowd.
The group became affectionately known around the world as The Charleston Five. ILA threatened a one day global strike if their members were found guilty.
With righteous might of a global collective backing them, the union reminded the company and their colluders of their power to halt the worldwide supply chain. Ultimately, the charges were reduced to misdemeanors carrying fines and house arrest but no jail time.
Politics beyond the docksInternational African American Museum
The Charleston Five exemplifies the far reach of organized labor.
Since the Civil Rights Movement the Local 1422’s political agenda has exceeded their waterfront to encompass maritime workers on other shores, other economic sectors, and a broad agenda of progressive social movements.
The ongoing fight for safer working conditions and a living wage for longshoremen in West Africa and the Caribbean has special resonances. Connected through heritage, they continue to work the routes established by triangle trade.
Today multinational companies still prioritize profit over people to exploit Black labor in service of the international market. However, unified labor tactics continue to disrupt the assumed hierarchy of power.
From healthcare workers, taxi drivers, fire fighters, machinists, and, more recently, the Fight for 15 demanding a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers, the union has participated in workers’ struggles at large.
Gender equity is inherent to principals of the union’s equal pay for equal work. The increase of women dockworkers has transformed the very idea of “longshoremen”.
The union hall once located at 1142 Morrison Drive was built in 2002 and had been the setting for meetings of the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter Charleston. It was also a gathering space for community events like the annual Labor Day celebrations.
Today, the union has relocated its headquarters on Corporate Road in North Charleston, where it will continue to provide much needed space for social happenings and political organizing.
Elected officials and prospects recognize the influence of the Local 1422 in national politics.
Because of its early primary and significant number of African American voters, South Carolina holds great power in determining who receives the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination each election.
South Carolina is credited as a turning point that led to the eventual election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
Since Charleston plays a crucial role in the state, and the Local 1422 is a vital part of Charleston, nearly every Democratic presidential hopeful has visited the union in recent years.
Today the union is as strong as ever with approximately 1500 members and others are eager to join when the union “opens the books” to new members.
At the dock, the sights, sounds, and smells comprise a familiar scene for the workers. They make up a constellation of different ranks and roles using equipment of all sorts to get the job done.
They have a language of their own for efficiency and sometimes use songs to keep rhythm and pass the time. The feature union members reproduce the scene as veterans share tips of the trade with newcomers.
Eventually those newcomers gain seniority and find themselves in the position to teach those coming behind them.
As some things change, others remain. Swift delivery of goods is now a way of life that many people can take for granted. Dockworkers keep that global movement of products going.
The ILA Local 1422 keeps the workers going as a union that advocates not only for its members, but for a better life for all workers.
Exhibition Curated by James Bartlett
Exhibition Coordinated by Shante’ Cozier
Exhibition Essay written by LaShaya Howie
Exhibition Design by Rolake Ojo
Film by Draulhaus
Photography by Joshua Parks
Special Thanks to the IAAM Curatorial Team, Martina Morale, Suzanne DiBella and Matthew Stevenson
Additional thanks to Dr. Kerry Taylor and ILA Local 1422