New Dock City

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."  

The results of the lockout were immediate. Incoming ships were trapped in port with their cargo or forced to drop anchor offshore. Parts shortages developed, forcing several automobile assembly lines to shut down, and hundreds of independent truckers faced financial ruin when suddenly they had no freight to haul. The crisis illustrated how dependent the country has become on Asian imports and how the effects of even a brief shutdown can grow exponentially. Ask Charlie Woo, the CEO of L.A.-based Megatoys. His company manufactures some of its inventory in the U.S., such as Valentine's Day and Easter baskets. But its big sellers — mini-radio-controlled cars — are made in China.

"You never catch up," he tells me. "I had several ships en route from China, which is normally a four-week cycle — two weeks to get here and two to go back. But that 10-day backlog means it's now taking three to four days to unload a ship instead of the usual two. You plan for a hot item like the radio cars, but they won't get here in time for Christmas." Woo estimates he'll lose 20 percent of his Christmas-season sales, which account for half of his company's yearly earnings.

There was never any doubt that President Bush would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which forced open the ports just long enough to prevent a Christmas-season wipeout. The administration, which regards the prerogatives of big business as unassailable droits des seigneurs, had regularly consulted with PMA executives during the talks while threatening to militarize the docks in the name of national security if the ILWU didn't sign a contract. There were also some not very subtle hints that the White House might look into placing the ILWU under the same no-strike status as railway workers, and declare "monopolistic" the ILWU's rule of binding all ports under a single contract.

Public impressions of the lockout were predictably shaped by TV news, which eagerly played the toy card by hammering home the idea that the closure would deprive children of their Christmas presents. By counterposing images of ILWU pickets with those of toy stores, TV news also implied the shutdown was the doing of union Grinches; it wasn't unusual for news readers to erroneously call the lockout a "strike." Dire predictions about the impact of the shutdown on the recovery of the national economy had pegged lockout costs at $1 billion per day, a figure that then miraculously leaped to $2 billion — only to be considerably knocked down when the lockout's toll was eventually tallied up.

The eternal law of labor PR was in effect: Workers are the ones who must seek raises, and so they're the ones tarred as tippers of the economic apple cart — all big business wants to do is make sure kids get their Christmas toys. No mention was made that wages account for only 1 percent of the PMA companies' operating costs, or that only one shipping line is now American-owned and that the White House is essentially acting as a bouncer for foreign interests. Or that fully 37 percent of the longshore work force are casuals to whom the PMA gives no benefits. And, certainly, no one reminded TV audiences that the $100,000-plus annual longshore salaries constantly quoted on-air represented the highest-paid workers.

The union, however, was almost willfully unsavvy about press relations and the need to shape the opinion of a public that smiles upon multimillion-dollar salaries for athletes and movie stars, but vexes over blue-collar workers earning more than $50,000 a year. The union could have said, "The next time you want someone to unload your new Honda, ask Shaq or Harrison Ford to go down to the harbor and get it for you," or pointed out that most other Americans could be making the same pay as longshore workers if they had enough guts to organize. Instead, the ILWU let the PMA use the media as its speakerphones.

Public support for ILWU locals 13 and 63, however, was visible all over San Pedro, where pro-union placards filled many store windows. Nick Tsouloufas, who owns Big Nick's Pizza, is typical of the locals who instinctively helped the longies during the lockout. The son of a Teamster, Tsouloufas was driving home during the shutdown's first hours when he noticed ILWU pickets outside the gates of the massive new Maersk facility at Pier 400.  

"I hadn't heard anything on the radio about a lockout," he says, "but it was 11 o'clock and cold, so I brought over pizza and hot drinks to the guys. I'm from a family of union members, and longshoremen and unions have always supported my family's restaurants in Long Beach. I felt like giving something back, and food always makes people feel good."

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1937, THE ILWU HAS REmained the most militant and class-conscious of America's big unions — virtually alone among the left-wing CIO unions of the 1930s, the ILWU emerged from the Cold War with its leadership and democratic principles intact. But it's a union enamored with its own muscular mythology and traditions in an age when the shipping industry is being transformed at a blurry velocity by robotics and computerization.

Before the two sides reached an understanding on the issue on November 1, the biggest sticking point in the contract talks had been the PMA's insistence on introducing new technologies to plan the loading of cargo and to track its progress from port to port. When export cargo comes in a terminal gate by truck or rail, it is transferred to different ships. A ship planner pulls up a stow plan of a vessel that is color-coded by port of discharge. The planner then prints out a bay plan which is distributed by clerks to the laborers. PMA member companies claim that the relative absence of computerized cargo-management systems, along with the use of optical scanners and other forms of electronic tracking, had caused American ports to fall behind higher-tech harbor facilities like Singapore and Rotterdam.

The ILWU countered that much of the technology in question was already in use but that it didn't always work: Sometimes a worker will be staring at a container while his printout tells him the can is sitting in Shanghai, or a container's bar code has been so battered that it is unscannable. In the last decade the ILWU had dodged any new-technology proposals during the previous contract talks, and unions in general are not known for their computer acumen. The national ILWU Web site is a joke — a bland page that consists mainly of its logo, it makes for a East-West Berlin contrast with the PMA's busy and colorful site. Nevertheless, during this year's negotiations the union said it would accept the technological advances, even though they would cost an estimated 400 jobs. What the ILWU wanted in return was jurisdiction over the mouse jockeys doing the clicking and dragging at their computer terminals.

"Historically this is work that we've always done," says former ILWU international president Dave Arian, who also sat at the contract talks, "but the PMA has been shifting the work away from us since 1982. They've set up ship-planning offices in right-to-work states like Utah and Arizona. The key phrase is that our clerks gain jurisdiction through initial data input when it hits the waterfront. That's not a technicality to us. It's like [ILWU founder] Harry Bridges said — even if there's just one button left or one job to do on the waterfront, we want it."

THE RELATIVELY SMALL ILWU (ABOUT 42,000 STRONG, not including members from its autonomous Canadian branch) was born out of the bloody West Coast strike of 1934. Three years later, the strike's leader, Harry Bridges, led his men to split from the conservative and mob-tinged International Longshoremen's Association, whose members today work East Coast and Gulf ports.

Bridges, who died in 1990, lived the story of a vanished century when men carried enormous weight on their backs and often had to bribe labor contractors for the privilege. The Australian native began his maritime career during WWI as a merchant sailor who loved to play the mandolin, got shipwrecked a couple of times and joined the most radical union in American history, the International Workers of the World. Bridges would eventually move to dock work in San Francisco and orthodox Marxism, but he held on to the IWW's credo, "An injury against one is an injury against all," which remains the ILWU's motto.

Three U.S. government attempts to deport Bridges, along with the memory of the waterfront's old Dickensian working conditions and the class-consciousness that Bridges instilled in his followers, shapes the union to this day, invigorating ILWU members with a visceral hostility to management and a deep distrust of federal intervention. This hardened attitude has proved intimidating to others; some people consented to be interviewed for this article only on condition of anonymity. "My car wouldn't be worth driving after going through the gate if you used my name," said one marine surveyor, while one ILWU member begged off from being quoted even off the record, claiming, "I could be fined $1,000 a word if they found out."  

To be sure, ILWU muscle has been flexed in other pursuits besides moving cargo. Although during the lockout it received a back rub of rhetorical support from the AFL-CIO, the ILWU has been engaged in a little-publicized street fight with other waterfront unions over jobs that currently belong to those unions. At the annual county Labor Day parade in Wilmington, the ILWU's contingent marched up Avalon Avenue as members of the International Association of Machinists Local 1484 unfurled a banner in front of their headquarters near M Street: "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All. ILWU Stop Raiding Our Jobs! We Need To Sit Down and Talk." Tensions have escalated to the point where an October letter signed by the heads of unions representing machinists, seafarers, ironworkers and operating engineers announced that those groups would not honor future ILWU picket lines. (Full disclosure: This writer is a member of a machinist local not involved in the waterfront-jurisdiction dispute.)

This kind of strife isn't confined to interunion arm wrestling. The ILWU is striving to preserve the ranks of its clerical units, such as L.A.'s Local 63, and like Americans in other formerly labor-intensive professions, brawny longies are increasingly becoming clerks whose occupational hazard is more likely to be carpal tunnel than hernias. (In fact, becoming a clerk is seen among many longshoremen and -women as a career advancement: After many strenuous years outdoors, a worker gets a high-paying job at a desk as a prelude to retirement.) During negotiations, however, there had been talk of a division between the dockworkers of Local 13 and the clerks of Local 63, with the "hooks" (the longies) claiming too much attention was being paid to the needs of the "clipboards" (the clerks). One harbor labor official told me he'd heard of a physical confrontation between members of the two locals at a Long Beach terminal, but, like so much of what one hears along the waterfront, this specific story could not be confirmed, and calls to the facility in question were not returned. Still, the overall rift was no secret along the docks.

"There's always a bit of a conflict between Local 13 and 63," says one steamship-company manager. "The guys in Local 13 are the ones who made this union, and the clerks are overpaid prima donnas."

THE ILWU'S NEMESIS, THE PACIFIC MARITIME ASSOciation, is an amoebic bureaucracy that began life in 1948 as a maritime payroll service. It has, in some ways, become bigger than the companies it represents and the union it does battle with. Besides acting as the industry's liaison with the ILWU, the PMA is responsible for training union members for skilled jobs and for port safety standards — it even has veto power over how many new union members the ILWU can register. All of its constituent companies I contacted declined to discuss the negotiations and referred questions to the PR firm of Steve Sugerman, a former L.A. deputy mayor under Richard Riordan.

No one seriously believed the ILWU would call a strike to win a new contract, either after its agreement with the PMA expired in July or when their subsequent talks went nowhere. The owners' version of a strike, the lockout, was another story. The PMA knew that closing port gates, just as Christmas inventories were literally appearing on the horizon from Asia, would give President Bush the political cover he needed to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act. The 80-day injunction worked like magic for the association since, under its "cooling off" terms, it guaranteed that the ports would remain open through the end of the Christmas shopping season, while removing even the possibility of a union strike.

The PMA says it locked the gates to its West Coast ports on September 29 (the negotiations did not involve union locals in Hawaii, Alaska and Canada) after the union had both failed to send out sufficient numbers of workers from its hiring hall and begun a "work to rule" slowdown, in which employees strictly observe every safety regulation. Yet even some non-ILWU observers deny there had been any sign of an ILWU slowdown prior to September 29.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary going on when the shutdown happened," says one Maersk company supervisor who requested anonymity. "The PMA manufactured this 'slowdown' on their books and bar charts to justify its lockout." Kevin Kucera, the president of Local 1484 of the International Association of Machinists, told me that, in the days preceding the lockout, he personally observed yard managers turn away ILWU casuals that their companies had requested from the hiring hall operated by Local 13.  

In the past, it's been universally acknowledged that the shippers, rather than risk work stoppages and bad blood with the ILWU, would just give the union what it wanted. But this time the PMA, led by president and CEO Joseph Miniace, was determined to stonewall the union. And for once it was the stevedoring companies, which manage dock space on behalf of the smaller shippers, spearheading the talks instead of the shippers themselves. While many of the bigger, richer lines like Maersk and American Presidents Line control their own docks and stevedoring operations, smaller lines must lease storage facilities and docking access from independents such as Stevedoring Services of America, a privately held company based in Seattle that was said to be the force behind the PMA's newly acquired backbone. The rise of the stevedoring companies' prominence reflects the fact that available dock space in L.A. harbors is vanishing — ports have built as far inland as they're legally entitled, and are still landfilling out toward the breakwater. By the year 2020, it is estimated that trade with Asia will increase 300 percent and, according to congressional testimony by Miniace, L.A. ports will require an additional 5,000 acres by 2010. Partly because of this, stevedoring companies have made technology a panacea that will solve the harbors' space crunch.

LOCAL 13 IS THE ILWU'S LARGEST BARGAINING UNIT, having some time ago surpassed San Francisco-Oakland's storied Local 10 — Harry Bridges' old power base. Like so many other symbols in California, 13's ascendancy marks the eclipse of Northern California by Los Angeles, for the international's president is James "Spinner" Spinosa, who was previously the head of the L.A. harbor clerical unit, the 1,100-strong Local 63. That last fact, in turn, italicizes the growing importance of white-collar unionists, who, like AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, a former activist of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have moved to the fore of organized labor over the last decade.

Since its inception the ILWU has run its own dispatch halls, a unique arrangement that means the union tells the PMA who'll be working for its member companies. As a result, the same people are not likely to work for the same company year after year unless they want to. And, since there are far more jobs than full-time union workers, this means that ILWU members have maximum flexibility in how often they work. But the companies bitterly complain that ILWU halls are woefully inefficient and that workers rarely arrive on the job on time.

"They get to pick and choose what jobs they get," says one management employee of a shipping line. "And no one ever starts work on the hour. Right now the ILWU can't control its members or handle its own hiring halls."

In 1960, following three years of discussions and union soul-searching, the ILWU and PMA signed the landmark Mechanization and Modernization agreement. The M&M contract, as it's known, ushered in the age of automation, containerized cargo and superships, and made West Coast ports far more productive — after M&M, it would take only two days instead of two weeks to unload a ship. The pact also made the ILWU a smaller but richer union by stripping it of thousands of manual lifting jobs in return for unprecedented salaries and pension payments. Now, for the second time in its history, the ILWU is facing a sea change in technology that can only result, down the line, in reducing its numbers. The big question is how much longer the ILWU can remain a union powerhouse if the core nature of its members' work changes and the numbers of those workers continue to decline.

Officially there's still a news blackout on details of the contract, with most leaks coming from the PMA and not the chronically secretive ILWU. What seems certain about the new contract is that pensions and health benefits for longshore workers will increase — which could be a sign that instead of asserting its jurisdiction over a new rank of clerical workers, the union is simply padding its coffin as it prepares for further downsizing of the waterfront labor force. How strong the ILWU will remain in the new century, as well as what kind of union it will be, hinges on how many of the computerization jobs it was able to claim jurisdiction over during negotiations.

The word is that ILWU negotiators are happy about the pact, even while it will ultimately cost those 400 clerical jobs, most of them through attrition, not firings. The safe money seems to be riding on the rank-and-file voting for the six-year agreement; still, ILWU locals enjoy a tradition of freewheeling, sometimes cantankerous democracy and, with the International Association of Machinists' mechanics having recently rejected its leaders' recommendation to accept a United Airlines' contract offer, anything is possible. As one veteran harbor worker said, "Everything down here is real. But it's not reality."


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