The International Longshoremen's Association was organized in the Great Lakes region in 1892 before spreading to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It grew to a membership of 50,000 by the turn of the century under founder Dan Keefe, an Irish tugboat captain. Keefe's principal intention was to maintain his union against the aversion to organized labor characteristic of the time. The ILA therefore adopted a conservative policy and joined the American Federation of Labor. Keefe thought that the diverse membership of industrial unions led to radicalism, and he guided the ILA to oppose the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World. In practice, however, the ILA became an industrial union; Keefe actively sought to enlist in the ILA such diverse craftsmen as marine divers, steam-pump operators, millmen, freight handlers, and coal, grain, and oil handlers. Furthermore, longshore work resembles the unskilled labor of industrial unions more than the skilled jobs usually allied with AFL craft unions. In an attempt to overcome the isolation of scattered and ineffective locals, Gulf Coast longshoremen who previously had affiliated with the ILA formed a regional organization, the Gulf Coast District, in 1911. J. H. Fricke of Galveston, a former president of the Texas State Federation of Labor, was elected the first president of the district, which later became the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District.
The abundance of Black dockworkers in southern ports and their frequent use by employers as strikebreakers forced the ILA to enlist Black longshoremen. The ILA organized separate locals for Blacks and whites in southern ports, but these locals, out of economic necessity, developed the custom of dividing available work on a fifty-fifty basis. Segregated locals allowed Blacks to hold many more offices than they would have had in integrated locals, and the practice in Texas ports of rotating work among gangs from the segregated locals helped toward "decasualization," a reduction in the number of casual laborers needed in order to stabilize the labor force.
Although the ILA maintained some strength in Texas ports despite the antiunion sentiment of the 1920s, employers utilized strikebreakers and company unions from the onset of the Great Depression through 1935, and the ILA found itself in a struggle for survival. After a major strike in 1935 involving considerable bloodshed and violence in Texas and other Gulf ports, the ILA finally won the allegiance of most dockworkers over rival company unions that employers had recognized after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. Still another significant challenge confronted the Gulf Coast District when left-wing, West coast longshoremen under Harry Bridges broke with the ILA in 1937 and formed the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union, which was affiliated with the CIO, and tried to win the allegiance of Gulf Coast dockworkers. Although little effect was felt in Texas, a bitter struggle took place in New Orleans before the ultimate triumph of the ILA's Gulf Coast District over the ILWU.
In the years after World War II, mechanical innovation drastically reduced manpower requirements and introduced technological unemployment. During the 1950s the widespread introduction of containerization, the practice of packaging cargo in large metal containers and moving it by cranes, allowed the loading or unloading of cargo weighing twenty to twenty-five tons in 2½ minutes, a task previously requiring eighteen to twenty man-hours. By the 1960s employers' demands for increased productivity resulted in fewer jobs and changing work assignments. Union response included negotiated royalty compensation for each container moved and the privilege, under some circumstances, of packaging or repackaging containers on the docks.
The ILA has always opposed Communism, especially during the long presidencies of Joseph P. Ryan (1927–53) and Thomas W. (Teddy) Gleason (1963-), often reacting to any hint of corruption or left-wing sentiment. During World War I and the following years, during Communist attempts to infiltrate longshoremen's unions in the 1930s, and during the McCarthy period in the 1950s, the ILA denounced, among others, the Industrial Workers of the World, Harry Bridges and the ILWU, and, in the 1960s and after, the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union and its allies.
Perhaps the most serious problem to confront the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District in recent years is the United States government's contention that the union's long-established use of the fifty-fifty principle to distribute available work equitably among Black and white locals violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in part because more than 50 percent of the longshoremen are Blacks. Black ILA locals, however, have supported the union position, which argues that the existing system not only allows Blacks more work, but ensures that they will hold many more offices than would be the case in an integrated situation. Such arguments had little effect in a Baltimore decision of the early 1970s affecting South Atlantic ports, in which a United States district court ordered the merger of segregated ILA locals. In a 1971 Texas case, however, a district court ruling, while still insisting that union practices constituted a Title VII violation, refused to enter an order requiring Black and White locals to merge. This decision represented at least a partial recognition that African Americans could lose both influence and employment opportunities by complying with the Baltimore decision. The district's locals, however, finally integrated in 1983 in accordance with the court edict.