There's a certain romance to the word "longshoreman."
But in essence, it simply means loading and unloading cargo ships. Daniel Yi, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, told me about the range of skills the job entails. Longshoremen do perform some timeless tasks, like tying a ship to the berth when it comes into port. They may drive imported cars out of a vessel and onto the docks, or do maintenance work around the port. Then there are the highly skilled, technical jobs, like plucking containers from a cargo ship, seated in a crane hundreds of feet in the air.
Yi says longshoremen file into the union hall each morning to get their assignment, and they're paid by the hour. If you average different pay scales reported by the unions and the shipping companies, a longshoreman makes about $100,000 a year, according to Michael LeRoy at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.
"If you were to ask, 'Okay, what does a crane operator make in lower Manhattan, lifting blocks of stone up a skyscraper?' you'd find a pretty good comparison on wages and benefits," he says.
Container ships and automation have drastically shrunk the number of longshoremen needed, says MIT economist Thomas Kochan. But their unions still hold a lot of power.
"Even though they're small in number, the service they provide is very pivotal and can't be replaced," he says.
Kochan calls a major port an economic bottleneck, highly strategic and vulnerable, especially for a consumer economy like the U.S. Goods can't flow without longshoremen, and that puts pressure on shipping companies to straighten things out fast.