A Short History of Trade Unions and the Shipping Pallet

It was a time of war, trade unionism, and the early history of the pallet. Imagine legendary Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, the U.S. Pacific fleet, the cast of Marlon Brando’s “On the Waterfront” and that fantastic new product, the shipping pallet. There were going to be waves.

Marlon Brando

Trade unions fight to sustain and grow their membership base; they also struggle to improve working conditions and the safety of their members. Historically, these two aims have at times been at odds  – true as well in the case of the shipping pallet, a modest history that involves a cast of thousands, and notable figures such as Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa.

The first tests involving pallets in the Pacific Theatre of War during World War 2 proved to be a thorn in the side of longshoremen, who quickly saw that the use of palletized material handling eliminated the need of much physical labor in unloading stacked products from ship holds. In the summer of 1943, the “Palletized Cargo Experiment: SS Paul Revere” took place in the Pacific under the direction of Norman Cahners, a young U.S. Navy officer. He observed and documented the shipment of ammunition and supplies from California some 4,800 miles to American Samoa. While the much back-straining labor of material handling would be avoided, it was seen by workers as a threat to employment, and probably as well engendered fear of learning new techniques.

James Hoffa

“In this experiment, the repugnance to change was especially apparent among stevedores and longshoremen since the new method held the prospect of reducing the number of men required to do the work in the future,” the experiment study starkly reported. “The contract stevedores who loaded the ship were not quite sure whether they should cooperate in proving the new method a success or whether they should prevent it from working at all. … [W]henever there were alternative ways of performing a particular operation, they invariably discovered and employed the most difficult.”

Cahners, with some success apparently, appealed to the loyalty of stevedores to win their cooperation.

When it came to the use of pallets, the issue of job security was also front and center for legendary Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. The late Bill Sardo, the administrator of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association in the 1950s, visited executives of the Teamsters to sway them towards acceptance of palletized shipments. His pitch was that the use of the pallet would transform them from laborers to chauffeurs. He further argued that palletization would create more jobs, and better ones at that, as palletized shipment created the opportunity to cost effectively ship more products than ever before. Reminiscing in 2002, Sardo told me it was far from an easy sell.

The opportunity for job creation was a point of view argued by others from that era, such as material handling consultant Matthew Potts. Eventually, Sardo was successful in winning acceptance from the Teamsters, while the trucking industry finally agreed to provide free freight allowances for pallets, a critical factor in their subsequent rapid adoption.

There were still other union-related pallet struggles even into the early 1960s. At West Coast ports, the practice of multiple handling was entrenched. Incoming palletized goods had to be depalletized onto “the skin of the dock” before being repalletized for placement into the holds of ships. After years of frustration, that practice was put to rest with the Memorandum of Agreement on Mechanization and Modernization, October 18, 1960.

Of course, that was many years ago. For the most part, pallets and workers have interacted harmoniously over the 50-plus years that have followed. Those earlier misgivings are now long forgotten as newer technologies such as palletizers and automated order assembly systems continue to evolve with the aim of eliminating even the labor of putting products onto the pallet in the first place, the latter now mostly taken for granted as a pillar of logistics execution.


  • Pallets A North American Perspective, LeBlanc and Richardson, 2003 (Out of print, second edition forthcoming)
  • In a niche by himself: The Norman Cahners Story, Steve Maas (2015)


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This article was first published in March 2015.