West coast dockworkers and shippers reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year contract Friday afternoon, ending months of labor strife. The effects of the standoff have been felt around the world – car assembly lines without crucial parts, billions in produce lost, and a shortage of french fries in Japan.
In a time when organized labor is declining, one relatively small union, The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) still has the power to slow down the economy.
Neither side will reveal details of the new contract, but it’s likely generous.
Shipping companies say dock workers average $147,000 per year. The ILWU says if you take out a few specialized positions, the figure is closer to $80,000. Either way, it is a good salary, especially for non-college grads.
“The ILWU is the American dream,” says Dave Arian, Vice-President of the Port of Los Angeles Harbor Commission, who worked for 44 years on the docks, and was an ILWU President. “My dad was a longshoreman. My daughter works on the waterfront. My sister retired off the waterfront. There are some families who have five generations and 30 people down here or more.”
Arian is well aware that the dock workers are an anomaly, a throwback to the days when blue-collar workers could routinely join a union and live a comfortable middle-class life, complete with a generous pension and full benefits. Such is the advantage of holding the power to shut down all 29 West Coast ports in your hands, as opposed to the East and Gulf Coasts, where ports aren’t covered by a single contract.
“I don’t believe longshoremen are any more militant than autoworkers were or mineworkers were,” says Arian. “But we have something they didn’t have: A strategic position where you can choke off capital.”
That’s because 40 percent of the goods imported into the U.S. come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Being a dock worker is great work if you can get it, but the key is getting it.
“The last time we put out applications, 360,000 people put in applications,” said Arian.
The union resorted to a lottery to pick 16,000 so-called casuals. Known as the “grunts of the waterfront,” they only pick up work full cardholders don’t want. And work is very sporadic, sometimes just one day a week.
Graduating to a class-B member can take a decade, but there are lucky ones, like Carol Randolph, who was only a casual for a year and a half.
“I’m kind of embarrassed to say it,” says Randolph. “My son has a casual card now and he’s been there seven years.”
Randolph’s father-in-law and uncles were in the ILWU, and her brother and brother-in-law are still in it now. Both of her sons are casuals, and so is her daughter. She raised all three as a single parent, working at the docks.
“This job has provided me with a decent home, clothes for my kids, food on the table, and they went to college," says Randolph. "We’re not going to Europe on vacation, but we do take vacations.”
But she has mixed feelings about her kids working the docks.
“It is an extremely dangerous job,” said Randolph. “We don’t have small accidents. We have accidents that kill.”
We met for coffee at the end of her nine-hour shift at a diner where, like every other business near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, there were ILWU signs taped to the window.
Randolph worked the docks for years but has enough seniority now that she can have one of the most desirable jobs – a vessel planner.
“We pretty much decide on what order the containers will have to be coming off the shift,” says Randolph. "If you don’t do it right, you can break the ship. Literally break the ship. The dangerous cargo that has hazardous explosives has to be stored in certain positions.”
When I asked Randolph if the union wanted better healthcare benefits, she said no, because how could they get any better? You can see pretty much any doctor you want and pay practically nothing out of pocket.
Randolph understands people not lucky enough to enjoy such gold-plated benefits might be envious.
“I don’t blame them for being jealous,” said Randolph. “This is a nice job.”
There are only about 20,000 dockworkers such as Randolph still working on the west coast, most of them at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Billions of dollars were lost as they negotiated for a contract, and experts say it will take several months to clear the backlog at ports.