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Finding Aid to the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union Records, 1906-1919
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • History
  • Scope and Contents
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Riggers' and Stevedores' Union records
    Date (inclusive): 1906-1919
    Creator: Riggers' and Stevedores' Union (San Francisco, Calif.)
    Collection number: larc.ms.0097
    Accession number: 1995/017
    Extent: 1.25 cubic feet (1 carton)
    Repository: Labor Archives and Research Center
    J. Paul Leonard Library, Room 460
    San Francisco State University
    1630 Holloway Ave
    San Francisco, CA 94132-1722
    (415) 405-5571
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English.
    Abstract: The Riggers' and Stevedores' Union Records include nine bound volumes of minutes from meetings from the years 1906-1919, and four folders of loose items from the years 1906-1918.
    Location: Collection is available onsite.

    Administrative Information


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the Labor Archives and Research Center. All requests for permission to publish or quote from materials must be submitted in writing to the Director of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the Labor Archives and Research Center as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Riggers' and Stevedores' Union Records, larc.ms.0097, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University.

    Processing Information

    The collection was processed in the summer and fall of 2001 by Conor Casey.


    These records were donated by Ottilie Markholt, a maritime historian who used them in writing her book on waterfront unionism, Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938; accession number 1995/017.


    The first evidence of labor action by longshoremen in San Francisco was recounted in the newspaper Alta California in May 1851, when dock workers struck for $6.00 a day in a struggle to maintain their standard of living as prices rose precipitously due to the inflation typical of the early Gold Rush economy (Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 20).
    In 1853, with the California economy recovering and growing, longshoremen struck for $6.00 a day, a 9-hour day, and $1.00 an hour overtime (Cross, 22). In the wake of this successful strike, the Riggers' and Stevedores' Association was organized from the ranks of skilled dockworkers on July 25, 1853. By 1854, the union had a membership of 350 (ILWU, 4). Newspaper reported strikes for increased wages in August of 1855 and July of 1856.
    Throughout the 1860's, the Riggers' and Stevedores' attempted to maintain their wages in the rapidly developing economy of California. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened the West up to national and international markets and exposed California's economy to the cheaper labor and manufacturing costs of the East, Midwest, and abroad. An influx of foreign and domestic immigrants inflated the workforce, deflated wages, and made it hard to maintain closed shop conditions (Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 22).
    Using a strategy that employed high initiation fees and the restriction of membership, the Riggers' and Stevedores' union tried to control and limit the longshore labor market in San Francisco. Part of this strategy was forming alliances with other labor organizations. The successful drive for an 8-hour day, which the Riggers' and Stevedores' won briefly in 1867, demonstrates the growing effort to forge alliances between Californian labor organizations, as "Eight Hour Leagues" pushed to reduce the workday (ILWU, 6; Cross, 43, 52).
    In the 1880's, in the midst of a growing trend toward longshore organization in San Francisco, membership in the Riggers' and Stevedores' was surpassed by other longshore unions due to its exclusion of unskilled longshoremen, its high $100 initiation fee, and the union's less - than - zealous attempts to organize the unorganized. By 1886, the Riggers' were one of three waterfront unions in San Francisco (ILWU, 6).
    The growing interest of the Riggers' in labor solidarity and alliances is evident in their role in the formation of The Federated Council of Wharf and Wave Unions in 1888 and the City Front Labor Council in 1891 (Cross, 198, 207). Both of these alliances were short-lived, but the support of the City Front helped the Riggers' in their successful strike for a wage increase in 1891 (ILWU, 6).
    By the turn of the century, San Francisco's longshore unions were affiliated with the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)- a member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Riggers' were among the unions who helped to form the City Front Federation, an alliance between teamsters, longshore, and seafaring unions that were established in 1901. After the Draymen's Association locked out 6,500 Teamsters who refused to drive non-union handled baggage, 13,000 members of the City Front Federation went out in a sympathy strike (Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 22). The employers, who had formed their own alliance to combat labor called the Employer's Association, decided to attempt to crush the young Teamster's Union in an effort to institute the open shop in San Francisco. When Governor George Gage forced both sides to end the strike after more than two months of bitter and violent conflict, the demands of the union remained unmet and the employers proved unable to crush the unions and institute open shop conditions. The fact that the unions survived such a long and bloody strike at all was seen as a victory for labor (Selvin, Sky Full of Storm, 21-26).
    In the aftermath of the strike, the Union Labor Party was formed and San Francisco's first labor mayor - Eugene Schmitz, a union musician - was elected (Cross, 246). Labor used the unity forged in the strike to consolidate inter and intra-union bonds, and to organize the unorganized. The Riggers' and Stevedores', along with other San Francisco unions, experienced an upsurge in membership. The Riggers' were strong at this time, enjoying wages 30 to 40 percent higher than longshoremen in New York. For the next several years, San Francisco enjoyed a relatively favorable labor climate and became an almost completely closed-shop city (ILWU, 7-8).
    During its history, the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union withdrew and then rejoined the ILA several times. This pattern illustrates the tension between the union's urge for industrial alliances and its inclination towards union independence and its desire to form an industry-wide federation of unions. Attempts at a coast wide alliance between maritime unions was discussed frequently in these years, but no serious attempt was made until 1914, when the Riggers' were involved in creating a local Waterfront Worker's Federation. In the same year, they also re-affiliated with the District 38 of the ILA. By the beginning of 1916, the Riggers' had withdrawn from the ILA again, preferring to spend the cost of affiliation on organizing and creating their own federation. This effort was unsuccessful because they encountered opposition in their plans to form "one big union" from members of the San Francisco Labor Council and the Waterfront Worker's Federation.
    At the ILA District 38 convention in May of 1916, longshoremen discussed unsatisfactory negotiations with employers relating to the closed shop, coastwide standard wages and practices, and a lockout in Vancouver. They felt that the increase in profits the shipping companies were reaping from the war in Europe and the opening of the Panama Canal to commercial traffic during August 1915 should be passed on to the workers in the form of higher wages. The union locals also demanded a coastwide closed shop. The convention voted to go out on strike on June 1, 1916 if their demands were not negotiated, giving the employers a month's notice. (Note: For an excellent and comprehensive examination of the decline of the Riggers' and Stevedore's Union and in the conditions underlying the strikes, see Mary Renfro, "The Decline and Fall of the San Francisco Riggers' and Stevedores' Union: A History of the years 1916 to 1919."(Senior Thesis, San Francisco State, 1995), Labor Archives and Research Center. Renfro's discussion of the causes of the strike and the reaction of the labor community help explain why the strikes failed.)
    Employers in San Francisco claimed they had only been given two weeks notice and called it a violation of their contract with the unions, which demanded two months notice before a strike. The Waterfront Workers Federation used this contractual violation to back away from the Riggers', which more conservative members thought was becoming too radical in its attempts to form an amalgamated maritime union. To some observers at the time, the Riggers' seemed to be influenced by the ideas of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union that advocated radical social change. On June 1, 1916, 10,000 longshore workers went out in the first coastwide strike of longshoremen in the West. The Riggers' and Stevedores' went out on strike with the ILA unions. The employers agreed to negotiate, and the strikers went back to work on June 9 with the assurance that strikebreakers would be dismissed if they did so. When the employers refused to dismiss the strikebreakers despite the adamant protests of the unions, the longshoremen walked out again on June 22. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which until this time had claimed neutrality in labor disputes, announced it would try to maintain the open shop on the waterfront and to defeat the closed shop in San Francisco (Cross, 249). A "Law & Order Committee" was created that promptly raised a fund of a million dollars to aid the employer's cause. After another violent period of strike, the Riggers' agreed to the employer's offer of a return to work under pre-strike conditions and returned on July 17, 1916. When they returned to work, San Francisco's longshoremen broke the coastwide solidarity of the other ILA unions still on strike. The 1916 strike proved to be a defeat for the unions (ILWU, 7-8).
    A bomb exploded on July 22, 1916 at the corner of Steuart and Market Streets during a World War I "Preparedness Day" Parade organized by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. The explosion killed 10 and injured 40 people, and labor was blamed for being responsible for the bombing. The flames of public opinion against unions were fanned by the employers and the Law and Order Committee. Within a short time, a group of people including two labor leaders, Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, was charged with the bombing. In the anti-labor backlash that followed, an ordinance was passed that made picketing illegal in San Francisco. The tide was turning against the labor-friendly climate on the waterfront and of the dominance of the closed shop in San Francisco (Selvin, Sky Full of Storm, 37-41).
    The Riggers' attempted another strike in 1919. They demanded higher wages to keep pace with a rising cost of living. To combat the increasing pace of work resulting from mechanization of longshore equipment, they demanded improved safety conditions, an increase in the number of men on work gangs, and limits on loads longshoremen had to handle (ILWU, 9). Among the more radical demands of the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union were for 25% stock ownership in each steamship company, and seats on the board of directors - but the strike was essentially a protest against the increase of the speed and amount of work for longshoremen, and the unsafe conditions that resulted. On September 15, the longshoremen walked out, having failed to reach an agreement with employers. The Waterfront Employer's Union refused to negotiate and began a public campaign against the longshoremen's "radical" union leadership (ILWU, 9). Thirteen hundred strikebreakers were brought into San Francisco to work the docks, and seafaring and teamster unions continued to haul and ship cargo for the employers (ILWU, 9; Cross 251; Cross gives the number of strikebreakers as 1,000). By December, the Longshoremen's Association of San Francisco and the Bay District was formed by gang bosses who split with the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union. The new union was without any of the radical ideology of the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union (ILWU, 11). In a short time, 1,000 longshoremen enrolled in the new union: 25% of the waterfront workforce (Markholt, 30). The employers quickly signed a five-year contract with the new union and refused to recognize or deal with any other unions. Individual longshoremen were forced to carry the blue due books of the Longshoremen's Association of San Francisco and the Bay District - the so-called "Blue Book" union - to gain employment on the waterfront.
    Though not technically a "company union", the Blue Book was dominated by the employers and showed no signs of independence- refusing to enforce its own rules pertaining to the rights of employees. In this way, what appeared to be a bona fide trade union on paper in reality did little to protect its members. In an attempt to regroup after the failed strike, the Riggers' once again re-affiliated with the ILA in December as Local 38-33, but within months, their power and membership had faded. By 1923, the ILA had canceled the Riggers' charter for nonpayment (Markholt, 32).
    The Riggers' and Stevedores' struggled to reorganize throughout of the 1920's. In 1923, Lee Holman, later a president of the San Francisco ILA local, attempted to organize again and was blacklisted from the Blue Book. In 1924, 400 longshoremen marched up Market Street under the banner of the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union - most of them were blacklisted by employers who didn't like the idea of a truly independent union or competition to the Blue Book's monopoly on the waterfront. In 1925, Holman successfully reorganized the Riggers' as Local 38-69. In 1927, the Riggers' local joined the San Francisco Labor Council to block the Blue Book union's bid for membership. Nevertheless, in 1929, the Riggers' and Stevedores' - one of San Francisco's oldest and continually existing unions - were unseated from San Francisco Labor Council and the Blue Book was admitted in its stead (Markholt, 32).


    Cross, Ira B. A History of the Labor Movement in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935.
    International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. The ILWU Story: Two Decades of Militant Unionism. San Francisco: ILWU, 1955.
    Markholt, Ottilie. Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938. Tacoma: Pacific Coast Maritime History Committee, 1998.
    Renfro, Mary. The Decline and Fall of the San Francisco Riggers' and Stevedores' Union: A History of the years 1916 to 1919. Senior Thesis, San Francisco State University, 1995.
    Selvin, David. Sky Full of Storm (Revised). San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1975.
    Selvin, David. A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco. Chicago: Wayne State University Press, 1996.

    Scope and Contents

    The Riggers' and Stevedores' Union Records include nine bound volumes of minutes from meetings from the years 1906-1919, and four folders of loose items from the years 1906-1918. Listed below are the sections contained in a typical entry, and the information that is usually contained in each type of entry. Please note that the order of the sections varies with time. The type of information contained within each section also varies slightly over time:
    • A passage stating whether this was a regular or special meeting of the union and the date and location of the meeting.
    • Password taken up
    • Roll call of officers and absentees noted.
    • Minutes of previous meeting read.
    • Communications Read: contains information on contemporary events, the contact between unions, correspondence from employers, and the ILA, the San Francisco Labor Council and the Waterfront Worker's Federation.
    • Bills to be Paid: bills, expenses, salary of union officers, affiliation fees to different associations to which the Riggers' belonged (ILA, Waterfront Workers Federation, the Japanese Exclusion League, etc.).
    • Applications for Membership: Names of applicants and names of their sponsors within the union.
    • Initiated: Applicants who were approved and initiated into the union.
    • Report of Committees: Information on the progress of different committees in the union.
    • Unfinished Business: Motions and issues carried over from another meeting. Mainly relates to motions or proposals, but sometimes also relates to disputes between union members.
    • New Business: Motions and legislation pertaining to work rules, union rules, and other issues are usually raised here. Often full of motions, amendments, and counter motions as well as records of how the members voted on specific motions.
    • Business Agent's Report: In this section, work grievances, job conditions, job actions taken by the union or individual longshoremen, and negotiations with employers are frequently discussed. This section often mentions working conditions, work-related deaths and injuries, and the amount of work the Riggers' were getting on the waterfront.
    • Financial Secretary's Report: Contains information on the amount of money the union had, what banks it was in, and the total wealth of the union at that time.
    Elections were generally held quarterly and the Financial Secretary's Report was recorded quarterly. The Financial Secretary's Report contains information on the wealth of the union and on the membership of the union in some cases. Election results are also often reported within the minutes every three months. Typically, they show the names of the candidates for office, the number of votes they received, and who won. Also listed are the results of propositions on the ballots relating to union actions or policies.

    Indexing Terms

    Labor unions--Longshoremen--United States.
    Labor unions--Organizing--United States.
    Labor unions--United States--History--20th century.
    Stevedores--California--San Francisco.
    Stevedores--Labor unions--United States.
    Strikes and lockouts--California--San Francisco.