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New Dock City 

Can the ILWU stay out of the bite?

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

"IT'S NOT A MATTER OF IF YOU'RE GOING TO GET hurt down here, it's how bad. Everyone gets hurt at one time or another. Everybody knows somebody who's died down here."

Carmen Mitre is sitting in the cavernous hiring hall of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in Wilmington, describing a 1996 incident in which a worker fell off a rail car and was pinned under the wheels of another car. It's a gloomy afternoon, and the hall is dark and deserted. Even today, Carmen chokes as she remembers how the paramedics arrived to find the situation hopeless — if they rolled the car back the crushed man would bleed to death. All they could do was make him comfortable until his family and other union members on the dock arrived to say their goodbyes to him. Then they rolled back the car.

Accidents are frequent at L.A. County's two harbors — this year five union members lost their lives during one seven-month period alone. People have been flattened or had limbs severed by trains running so silently on a gravity roll that they never heard them coming. Many married workers wear breakaway wedding bands to avoid losing fingers in mishaps; the custom among Hawaiian ILWU members is to simply have the ring tattooed on the finger. Carmen, who joined the ILWU in 1989 when it set up a lottery to bring in more women members, is always on guard to "stay out of the bite," as the direction of swinging cargo is called.

The hook: ILWU icon and
symbol of Local 13’s power

Carmen drives a top-loader, a dinosaur-size vehicle that places 40-foot containers on truck chassis or rail cars. Her husband, Greg, who has been in the union full time for 17 years, operates a towering hammerhead crane on the Matson Line dock — occasionally they find themselves working together in the same yard. The Mitres met while they were both working for Catalina Cruises, Greg as a captain and Carmen as an operations coordinator. They were married 14 years ago. Although Greg was making more money then than he could as a longshoreman, he eventually left the cruise business for dock work.

"I'd had a desire to become a longshoreman for a long time," he says. "In San Pedro it's a very respected job and highly sought after, because there's a lot of camaraderie between the people who work down here. Local 13 has 4,500 members, and I probably know half of them."

The Mitres make good money — Carmen pulls down $60,000 per year, while Greg, who works more hours in a higher-skilled position, makes a little more. But the couple bristles at the scorn union members have been getting from pundits who compare them to the major-league baseball players whose strike shut down the 1994 season.

"I lost my best friend in 1985," Greg says. "I've had five friends injured permanently who will never work again. Two years ago my younger brother lost five toes in an accident."

"He was lucky," Carmen adds. "He had a 10-ton steel beam fall on his foot, and it basically amputated his toes. The same thing happened several years before when a beam had caught another union member up a little higher on the leg. He bled to death on the way to the hospital."

Married to the union:
Carmen and Greg Mitre

Most people's image of longshoremen is probably refracted through the lens of Cold War Hollywood: On the Waterfront's labor racketeers, the thuggish Reds in I Married a Communist and Big Jim McLain. Those negative images weren't much improved upon over the last half-year when the ILWU was negotiating for a new contract with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), whose members include shipping lines, stevedoring companies and terminal service outfits. On September 29, after a fruitless three months, the PMA locked out the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's 10,500 West Coast members at 29 ports. The "longies," besides being portrayed by big media as overpaid and lazy, were pilloried as arrogant and woefully behind the times.

On November 23, the ILWU and PMA signed a tentative agreement that must be ratified by the union membership in January. If its members approve the agreement, the ILWU's first 21st-century contract will forever change the union. The question is, into what?

L.A. COUNTY'S TWIN PORTS IN LONG BEACH AND San Pedro form a mobile landscape of steel and concrete whose Pharaonic scale dwarfs the humans operating it into near invisibility. Bordered by roads with names like New Dock Street, Henry Ford Avenue and Harry Bridges Boulevard, yards belonging to the Maersk, Matson, Hanjin and other shipping lines are typically filled with 370-foot-high hammerhead cranes that each lift 40-ton containers at the rate of 25 to 35 cans per hour, 24/7. Below, 200 to 300 trucks move the cargo off and onto the street. Greg Mitre says it's "like standing in a thundering herd of elephants."

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