Robin Lindley interviews renowned labor historian Dr Harvey Schwartz on his book "Labor Under Siege"

ILWU demonstrators at the Vancouver, Washington, 2013–2014 lockout in the Northwest grain industry. Credit: Dawn DesBrisay.

Introduction: An injury to one is an injury to all. Motto of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In the past four decades, the American labor movement has seen dwindling union membership and incessant threats from corporations and government along with rightwing anti-union activists seeking to eliminate collective bargaining and other worker rights protected by union membership. This recent labor history proves instructive in understanding today’s seeming upsurge in union activism and organizing advances on several fronts.

In the fraught years since the onset of the Reagan administration, the West Coast’s progressive International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has persisted and achieved significant victories for members while experiencing some difficult compromises and setbacks. Labor historian Harvey Schwartz illuminates the work of this powerful labor organization and modern worker activism in his recent book of oral history, prepared with the late Ronald E. Magden, Labor Under Siege: Big Bob McEllrath and the ILWU’s Fight for Organized Labor in an Anti-Union Era (University of Washington Press, 2022). By delving deeply into one prominent labor organization, the book reflects the conflicts and constraints that have threatened the existence of American unions in recent years.

Dr. Schwartz’s study focuses on the career of the resolute and charismatic union leader Robert (“Big Bob”) McEllrath, who served nearly four decades as an ILWU official, including as International vice president from 2000 to 2006 and International president from 2006 until late 2018. The book traces the story of this legendary six-foot-four champion of working people from his youthful athletic achievements to the beginning of his career on the docks in Vancouver, Washington, in 1969, and through his varied work duties and his increasingly responsible union positions since 1980, concluding with his service as ILWU president and his retirement from active union engagement on January 1, 2019.

Dr. Schwartz and Ron Magden interviewed McEllrath and 40 other coworkers and union colleagues, as well as family members, to create this insightful and engaging working-class history. The interviewees flesh out McEllrath’s evolution from dockworker to union leader and describe many significant labor-management confrontations during those years. Dr. Schwartz, an expert on the ILWU and union history, organizes the book around themes and events that he has researched and written about for decades, and his special knowledge and exhaustive research shine through this oral history.

From the interviews of colleagues and others, McEllrath emerges as a visionary strategist with a gift for complex negotiations and a reputation for integrity, honesty, transparency, and courage in the face of pro-employer laws, employer recalcitrance, rightwing anti-union activists, dire threats, and even physical violence.

As he led the union, McEllrath never lost sight of the progressive ILWU traditions of inclusion, equality, democracy, and social justice. He valued internal union democracy, equitable job distribution, militancy, international cooperation, and a diverse workforce. The union has represented workers from an array of backgrounds, including women and men of Black, Asian, Indigenous, Pacific Island, and other ancestries. And the union has famously challenged violations of human rights and worker rights by corporations that embrace brutal globalization and privatization practices.

According to contributors to Labor Under Siege, McEllrath had a record of more successes than losses in unifying and expanding the union as he bargained with often intransigent employers for better working conditions and recognition of worker rights. In an era when many unions were losing members and facing incessant anti-worker attacks, his successes were quite noteworthy, including wage increases, better benefits, and reforms to advance social justice and fairness in hiring.

McEllrath’s legacy will inform the new generation of labor leaders who can look to his policies, strategies, and approaches to conflict as the labor movement now gains energy on several fronts.

Perhaps recent developments bode well for the future of American workers. Late September 2023 saw a historic moment as President Joe Biden became the first sitting president to join a picket line with striking workers, members of the United Auto Workers. The president donned a hat emblazoned with the UAW symbol and stood with UAW president Shawn Fain as he proclaimed his support for the workers and the labor movement. The following day, former president Donald Trump visited a non-union factory and proclaimed his love for workers as he failed to acknowledge his notorious antagonism toward labor unions and his trickle-down economic policies that hurt working people while benefiting the wealthiest citizens and large corporations. It’s certain that Big Bob would have some astute comments on Trump’s rather constricted “love” of workers and his loathing of unions that protect employees.

Dr. Schwartz’s Labor Under Siege will stand as an important contribution to the recent history of workers. It provides a context for working-class and social justice studies as it informs and inspires today’s workers, activists, union leaders, and all citizens who value justice, fairness, and democracy.

Dr. Schwartz is curator of the ILWU Oral History Collection at the union’s library in San Francisco. He wrote Labor Under Siege with his friend and colleague Ronald E. Magden (1926–2018), the author of several books of labor history, including A History of Seattle Waterfront Workers, 1884–1934, and two volumes about dockworkers in Tacoma, Washington. Their new book recently won prizes from Independent Publisher Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Nautilus Book Awards, and was a finalist for an Independent Publishers of New England Award. Dr. Schwartz’s other books include The March Inland: Origins of the ILWU Warehouse Division, 1934-1938 (1978; rpt. ILWU 2000); Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU (2009); and Building the Golden Gate Bridge: A Workers’ Oral History (2015). He holds a Ph.D. in history from The University of California, Davis.

Dr. Schwartz graciously responded to a series of questions by email. Please read the entire interview.

Originally published with the Labor and Working-Class History Association LAWCHA ( on April 19, 2024.



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