Kenneth Crier, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 3000, looks to the future but, like many New Orleanians, he misses his old building. “We are going to try and rebuild. The hurricane did a lot of damage [and] then they told us there was asbestos …” The end of that particular Hurricane Katrina story was that the ILA headquarters at 2700 S. Claiborne Ave. was demolished.
The ILA hall was designed in 1959 by the New Orleans architectural firm of Lawrence and Saunders. Sadly, this interesting example of modernist architecture, one of a limited number built in the city in this style, is now lost. When it was commissioned, it was the home of the black ILA Local 1419, then under its legendary President Clarence “Chink” Henry. (That local, and the white Local 1418, whose longtime president was Al Chittenden, completed a merger in 1980.) The ILA building had construction costs of $500,000. It was topped with an elaborate exterior truss system (which somewhat resembled the super-structure on a cargo ship) and its sides were sheathed in Vermont Verde, an exotic deep-green serpentine marble with white markings.
For nearly half a century, the ILA hall was home to this active labor union whose members provide the muscle that keeps the Port of New Orleans in the forefront of the American maritime industry. The ILA also shared their building with the wider community: The Civil Rights movement found a home there and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met there. The union was active in political campaigns and members were encouraged to register and vote. In another community gesture, the ILA hall provided a venue for gay Mardi Gras balls at a time when other locations might not be so welcoming.
ILA Local 3000 Secretary-Treasurer Mark Ellis is retiring after 28 years in the union. While the building may be gone, Ellis remains optimistic. “We’re still here, operating out of temporary quarters on the Napoleon Avenue wharf.”
According to President Crier there are around 350 ILA members today. And, they work handling cargo. Although many ships use only containers (which can be loaded by crane right from a truck to a ship’s deck), longshoremen are needed for what’s called break-bulk cargo that requires gangs of men to manually move them piece by piece.
The movie Panic in the Streets offers a glimpse at what the old pre-container wharves of New Orleans looked like.
Director Elia Kazan’s 1950 film was shot in the French Quarter – the plot concerns a public health officer (Richard Widmark) tracking down people exposed to a pneumonic plague victim smuggled in via ship.
In the final scenes, Widmark chases hoodlum Jack Palance through wharves where longshoremen load huge sacks of coffee and giant banana stalks onto conveyer belts.
Since the beginning, boats with cargo to unload have docked here. Late in the 19th century the wharf workers began organizing themselves into associations. In a 1986 dissertation at Yale University, historian Eric Arnesen tracked New Orleans dockworkers’ early unions from 1880 to 1923. The workmen first formed the Cotton Men’s Executive Council, joining not only workers of both races, but different dock trades and crafts.
Arnesen’s book, Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863–1923 records that, even when the union was broken by the employers, the workers persisted in forming other groups. The steamship companies were able to get unions off the docks in the 1920s, but, during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the ’30s, unions returned.
Twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. ILA members report to the hiring hall (on Felicity Street near Richards Street) for “shape-up,” where employers announce what work is available. Mark Ellis, a member for nearly three decades, has seen a decline in available jobs. “I used to have to park two blocks away. Now you can just drive right up.”
Politicians used to campaign regularly at “shape-up,” and, says Ellis, still might show up at election time.
Where there were once almost 6,000 local members in the ILA, the port of today has different needs.
Containerization; the passage of the “Right to Work”: law in Louisiana (which does away with the enforced requirement of union membership for employment by a company), and cargo growth at other ports (such as Houston, Gulfport, Mobile and Charleston) all contributed to the decline in the number of local ILA jobs. However, there are still terminals that use the ILA, and there is still break-bulk cargo to be handled here.
And, in one huge break with the past, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans (the Dock Board) actually had an ILA chairman – James Campbell, former ILA president, who completes his five-year term on the board this year.
The Dock Board, like the Public Belt Railroad and the Sewerage & Water Board, was a public-private entity created in the “Progressive” era, around 1900, as an efficient way to apply business principles to operating a government service. Different organizations can nominate members to the board, and Campbell joined as the second union representative – the late Joe Knecht of the AFL-CIO was the first.
Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, has a good relationship with the ILA “In my 34 years of being a port director I’ve never had a better group to work with. When you sit at the table with organized labor, you get so much more accomplished!”
Campbell was especially helpful in lobbying President George W. Bush to lift an embargo on imported steel, and LaGrange also credits Campbell with helping get two tax credit bills through the Louisiana Legislature.
According to LaGrange, the month of October saw New Orleans reach its highest number of container vessels ever:
37. Break-bulk cargo may be impacted by the declining value of the dollar: American steel is now selling abroad.
LaGrange also says metals other than iron are coming into the port because “we are the largest London Metal Exchange port in the U.S., and those metals will stay here in LME warehouses waiting for trading in the futures market.”
LaGrange noted that, because of the nature of shipping today, the number of jobs for longshoremen may be fewer, but the work still pays well and is necessary.
“We are still a major break-bulk port. And, that actually requires gangs of men going down into the holds of the ships.” He describes the local terminals as about “50/50” in the ratio of union to non-union for the workers they hire.
The local ILA many be smaller, but members are optimistic about the future. And, says Ellis, they will get a new home. “At some point in time, the local will have a new structure – somewhere.”
It might even remind us of their old hall. “We did save some of the marble facing off that building, and we still have the original logo off the front: International Longshoremen’s Association, Local 3000.”