Transforming the Waterfront
One Size Fits All
Containers—steel boxes stuffed with goods—and the systems for transferring them between ships, trucks, and trains transformed commercial shipping. Containerization streamlined freight handling and slashed the cost of transporting cargoes of all kinds. It also stimulated big changes for waterfront workers, and for the waterfront itself.
In San Francisco, shipowners and longshoremen (who load and unload ships) debated how newly mechanized work would be performed. With fewer men needed to handle containers, longshoremen faced huge job losses. They demanded compensation from the shipping companies. In 1960, the two groups negotiated a labor contract that eased the transition, but forever changed waterfront work. At the same time, San Francisco and Oakland, rivals across the bay, responded differently to the container revolution. With acres of flat land and access to railway and road networks, Oakland embraced the new technology. San Francisco, lacking both, lagged behind and was quickly bypassed as the area’s primary port.
The Container System
Linking Sea and Land
Malcom McLean, a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina, acquired a steamship company in 1955 with the idea of using its ships to transport cargo-laden truck trailers. McLean’s experiment resulted in the world’s first container ship, the Ideal-X. It made its inaugural voyage from New Jersey to Texas in 1956 with 58 trailers (containers) on its deck. McLean’s enterprise became Sea-Land Services, an international shipping company.
The Matson Navigation Company: Serving All Hawaii
The Matson Navigation Company, established in 1882, inaugurated containerization on the West Coast. In the 1950s, the company researched ways to control rising costs, and discovered that loading and unloading cargo--moving goods a few feet between ship and pier--accounted for almost half of transportation costs. Aware of container technology, the company decided to invest in it.
Matson’s first container ship left San Francisco for Honolulu in August 1958 with 20 containers on deck. Within two years, the company’s Hawaiian Citizen, carrying 436 containers in the hold, became the first all-container ship to enter Pacific service.
Matson’s first container ships were general cargo vessels converted to carry containers. In 1970, the company launched two ships specially built for container service. At the time they were the largest such ships in existence, each able to carry more than 1,000 containers.
At Work on the Waterfront
A tight stowPhotograph by Otto Hagel, courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
When unloading a conventional freighter, longshoremen put other skills to work. Some members of the gang loaded cargo into slings. Many operated winches to hoist the cargo. It was a matter of pride not to “let the hook hang”—to work so effectively as a team that there was always a slingload of cargo in motion. Still, unloading often took more than a week.
Cargo hooks were the indispensable tools of traditional longshoremen. The hook extended their reach and allowed them to snag a sack, bale, bundle, or box and lift it to a pallet or sling. Longshoremen used different styles of hooks for different kinds of cargo and even customized the handles to fit their hands.
“Turnaround time” in the shipping industry is the time between a ship’s arrival in port and its departure. The time it takes to load and unload a ship is often the largest factor in turnaround time. For shipowners, the less time in port the better. A ship in port is not making money; it is generating expenses. In the 1950s, shipowners were desperate for ways to reduce turnaround time.
Longshoremen realized that containerization would change their world. Since 1937, longshore work on the West Coast had been performed by members of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). By the 1960s, both the union and the shipping companies, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, recognized that containerization would drastically cut the number of cargo-handling jobs. Would longshoring survive?
Harry Bridges: Getting a Piece of the Machine
We should accept mechanization and start making it work for us, not against us.” —Harry Bridges
A charismatic and controversial union leader, Harry Bridges was president of the ILWU from 1937 until 1977. Born in Australia, Bridges became a longshoreman in San Francisco and won the loyalty of maritime workers after leading them through the bloody labor strike of 1934. In the 1960s, the issue of mechanization put Bridges’ leadership to the test, both with shipowners and with his own union members.
Bridges saw that mechanization was inevitable, but that it could also make longshore work safer and easier. While some jobs would be lost, Bridges wanted to make the best deal possible for longshoremen, to get them “a piece of the machine.”
Harry Bridges leading longshoremen in a Labor Day parade, San Francisco, 1939Courtesy of Anne Rand Research Library, ILWU Archives, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, San Francisco
The M&M Agreement
In 1960, after more than a year of intense negotiations, shipowners and longshoremen’s representatives signed a landmark labor agreement. The Mechanization and Modernization (M&M) Agreement allowed shipping companies to continue introducing laborsaving machines and got rid of old work rules that had become inefficient. It also gave longshoremen a 35-hour workweek and other benefits. And it created a $29 million pension fund, built by contributions from the shipping industry, to encourage longshoremen to retire early.
Hiring Hall vs. Steady Men
From the strike of ’34 came the hiring hall, replacing the old “shape-up,” where men often had to bribe their way into jobs. Longshoremen reported to the hall every morning to get work, knowing that the union would assign jobs fairly.
Containerization threatened this system. By the mid-1960s, shipping companies were investing heavily in container ships, cranes, and other shoreside facilities. They wanted to select and train the men who would operate the machines, and to employ them regularly as “steady men.” This proposal would create elite workers, effectively blocking jobs from some union members. Many longshoremen were prepared to fight.
The Strike of ‘71
In 1971 ILWU members voted to strike rather than accept the terms of the proposed labor contract, especially the “Steady Man” clause. Against the advice of Harry Bridges, their longtime leader, the longshoremen shut down shipping on the West Coast for more than 130 days. The strike ended in February 1972 when the two sides reached a settlement amid pressures from lawmakers. The rank and file gained little, and shipping companies secured the right to employ “steady men.”
Gains and Losses
“The extraordinary strength of the Union had been built … by the social relationships that had been fashioned amongst the members by reason of the hiring hall and the nature of the work.… And we lost that one with the 9.43 [‘Steady Man’ clause].” Herb Mills, ILWU longshoreman
Transforming the Landscape
Container operations transformed commercial ports. Suddenly a port needed acres of flat land for storing containers. And direct links with overland transportation were vital. San Francisco’s harbor had served the region well since the gold rush, but its hilly landscape and its distance from major rail systems were disadvantages in the container revolution.
Across the bay, Oakland had plenty of flat land for storage, was served by three railroads, and hadtrucking facilities nearby. By 1970, it had eclipsed San Francisco as the region’s leading port.