Chartered in 1869, the Longshoremen Protective Union Association (LPUA) established the legacy of a strong union presence, comprised almost exclusively of African Americans, along Charleston’s docks.
Chartered in 1869, the Longshoremen Protective Union Association (LPUA) established the legacy of a strong union presence, comprised almost exclusively of African Americans, along Charleston’s docks. Their longevity, influence, and success mark Charleston longshoremen as perhaps the most prominent exception to South Carolina’s long tradition of anti-unionism.
Before the Civil War the task of loading port cargo was relegated to slave labor. After the war dockworkers found themselves in competition with rural freedmen who made their way to Charleston. The flood of labor depressed wages among port workers. Perhaps emboldened by the role played by African Americans in South Carolina’s Reconstruction politics, Charleston’s LPUA obtained its charter from the General Assembly on March 19, 1869.
A series of unprecedented strikes solidified the LPUA’s control over dockside labor. In January 1868 and September 1869 shipping lines raised wages following union work stoppages, and in 1873 Charleston’s Democratic mayor convinced a shipping line to accede to union demands. LPUA leadership soon forced shippers to agree to a closed shop and convinced stevedores to join the union. The union’s influence extended beyond Reconstruction; in 1898 the LPUA pressured a shipper into removing imported nonunion workers from Charleston. At the turn of the century longshoring wages in Charleston were double that of Savannah, Georgia, or Wilmington, North Carolina. Ironically, the LPUA was successful in large part due to racial attitudes among potential white strikebreakers. Whites perceived longshoring labor, long the province of Charleston’s African Americans, as socially demeaning; other blacks refused to cross the picket lines. Shippers were largely unable to find suitable replacement workers.
From its inception, the LPUA was influential in both Republican and Democratic politics. Local Republicans counseled the union during various strikes, and in 1869 the LPUA successfully conducted a strike to protest a member’s dismissal for Republican Party involvement. That year state Republicans called a statewide labor convention in Charleston that included the Speaker of the House and the secretary of state. The LPUA’s Democratic influence was exerted through C. H. Simonton, an influential white representative from Charleston, who led legislative efforts to charter the LPUA in 1869, and to recharter it in 1880.
Beyond politics, the LPUA was a respected part of the Charleston community. The association’s July 4, 1875, parade was viewed as “exceedingly creditable.” Later that year the News and Courier hailed the union as “the most powerful organization of the colored laboring class in South Carolina.” LPUA action steeled the resolve of other Charleston unions, inspiring a failed 1873 citywide strike that affected nearly all area phosphate, rice, and saw mills.
Hurricanes, an earthquake, port neglect, and poor rail connections damaged the Port of Charleston’s viability in the late nineteenth century, and the LPUA lacked adequate work. The union’s charter was not renewed in 1900. However, organized Charleston longshoremen resurfaced in 1936 when George German chartered International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422. By the close of the twentieth century, ILA Local 1422 held one of the largest private pension funds in the state, was measured among the most efficient port labor forces in the world, and for a South Carolina labor union, enjoyed unusually broad support among local politicians and business leaders.
Poliakoff, Eli A. “Charleston’s Longshoremen: Organized Labor in the Anti-Union Palmetto State.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 103 (July 2002): 247–64.
Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.