The Life of a Casual Longshoreman

This page was created to show support for all the non-registered longshore personnel. They have a tough go of it and need to know they are appreciated. They play an important role in filling in when the Ports are busy. We need to help the casual worker learn all there is to know about the ILWU and the importance of being in a union.

Below is an essay submitted by Marc Palacios, ILWU Local 13 Casual

SPECIAL REPORT: Sure, it's only part-time labor, with long waits for jobs and odd hours. But the hope of snaring a 'million-dollar' longshore union slot makes these folks anything but Casual About Dock Work

By DAN WEIKEL, LA Times Staff Writer
5/9/99

Casual longshore workers are the grunts of the local waterfront. They lack union status and keep odd, inconsistent hours moving cargo vital to the economy of the western United States. A week or 10 days can pass before they get a chance to earn a full day's pay. Their hiring hall isn't a hall at all, but a parking lot next to an auto dismantling yard in Wilmington. Dead bodies are sometimes found nearby, and bullet holes dot the dispatcher's small office. If you don't move fast enough in line when the day's work is parceled out, or you fumble your ID card at the dispatch window, too bad. You've "flopped." Come back next week. 

The dispatcher just handed your precious chance to work eight hours to the next person in line. Longshore workers in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles say the aggravation, hard work and personal sacrifice are worth it. Put in enough time as a casual and the brass ring will eventually come around--entry into Local 13 (Los Angeles) of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the prospect of landing what shipping industry officials call a "million-dollar job." "I don't regret one day of it," said Ramona M. Galindo of San Pedro, now a union member after seven years as a casual. "It really takes a considerable investment of your time. But that's just the dues you pay."

Today there are about 9,000 longshore workers in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. About 5,200 are members of the union and attached to longshore, marine clerk and dock boss locals. The organized labor is supplemented by at least 3,600 casuals--a pool of part-timers that has emerged over the last decade as a reliable source of trained Dockers. Without them, cargo would have been stranded in the county's ports far longer than it was during the merger of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in late 1997. 

From September to December that year, severe rail congestion throughout the Southwest caused goods to stack up on the docks for months, costing shippers and carriers millions of dollars. "The  International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the shipping industry don't always have good things to say about each other, but the creation of the casual process is one of the best joint efforts we have done," said Robert E. Dodge, a training director for the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents 90 shipping companies and terminal operators on the West Coast. 

Women are the exception to the seniority rules worked out as part of the casual process, something that has become a source of litigation in court and controversy at the casual dispatch hall. Because of a federal court settlement that set hiring goals for women in 1983, female casuals have entered the union with far less seniority and experience than men. A group of more than 100 male casuals is now contesting the goals in federal court. 

Over the past two months, they filed briefs arguing that the 1983 agreement has resulted in reverse discrimination and violations of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Attorneys for the women filed their responses, and a decision on whether to uphold the female hiring goals may be made by the end of the month. Whatever the outcome, casual longshore workers will continue to take the waterfront jobs that are not filled by the union. They also replace union members who, for whatever reason, cannot complete their job assignments. 

Casuals can either work in comfort as marine clerks tracking cargo with a computer, or they can wear a protective suit and shovel sulfur for hours in the stifling hold of a cavernous bulk carrier. Much of the work, however, involves typical longshore assignments--moving cargo around port terminals with small tractor trucks, known as UTRs, or lashing and unlashing stacks of 40-foot containers aboard ship. 

When they work, casuals make $18.50 to $21.50 an hour. But the goal for most is union membership, with earnings of $60,000 to $100,000 a year, plus a full package of medical and pension benefits. Pay can go even higher for some marine clerks, crane drivers and heavy equipment operators. The path to union wages, however, can be five to 10 years long--sometimes longer--and the quest pits casual workers against each other in a race for seniority. Like almost everything else in the shipping industry, time is critical. 

When the union recruits members, casuals with the most hours get in. It is possible to miss a crack at registration by a mere half hour in seniority. When that happens, casuals can wait months, if not years, for another chance to enter the union. I've got a job and a family, and I'm competing with 18- and 19-year-olds living at home with Mom and Daddy," said Andrew Linares, 33, an ironworker from San Pedro. 

Linares has been a casual for five years and primarily works the docks on weekends, holidays and other days off from his regular job. He's earned about 1,100 hours toward registration. "A lot of people are tryin' to get to that light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "You can't blame'em." But women work hundreds of hours less to get into the union, according to court documents. Because they need fewer hours, female casuals often refuse to take the dirtier and more physical jobs at the port, some men say.

"Some women step out of line when the shoveling and lashing jobs come up," said one male casual, who declined to be identified. "Meanwhile, the men are beating themselves up to accrue hours. It's not fair." The Person Who Hesitates Is 'Flopped' The race for seniority begins every morning at the casual dispatch hall at Eubank Avenue and Anaheim Street in a littered industrial area of Wilmington. The "hall" is a fenced parking lot with an office at one end. 

If it rains, bring an umbrella. The casuals are permanently assigned letters. When the rotation nears their part of the alphabet, they must report to the hall and be ready to work. If they're not, the next employment opportunity could be in a few days or two weeks, depending on the amount of cargo in port and the willingness of union members to take the available jobs. "I put my whole life on hold when my letter is coming up," said one casual longshoreman, who requested anonymity. 

"You can't commit to anything except getting down to the hall. The other day my wife wanted us to go to San Luis Obispo. I told her,' Forget it.' " Casuals say it is often necessary to report to the hall twice a day, once for the morning shift and once for the evening shift, to get a chance to work. If spread over several days, this can mean 10 to 12 hours of waiting to get an eight-hour assignment--a substantial commitment of time for those who have families or full-time jobs. 

"You can hang around the hall at night in the cold and rain," said a casual Dockworker. "If you don't get a job that day, it's just
miserable." For the morning shift, everyone begins lining up in front of the dispatcher's office about 7:30 a.m. The dress is strictly blue-collar--baseball caps, flannels, sweatshirts, work boots and denim.

About 8 a.m., the unfilled work assignments arrive and the loosely formed line tightens up. "Here comes the work," someone yells. If a casual hesitates in getting to the dispatch window, or drops his or her ID card in front of the dispatcher, the job will go to the next person. "Some dispatchers can be tough. They don't give any slack for screw-ups," said a casual longshoreman, who declined to be identified. 

"To a certain extent, there's a point to it all--too many delays in line can cost everyone time and money." Once the work is dispatched, those with a job assignment dash to their cars. Some of them run the red light at Eubank and Anaheim in their haste to get to work. "It can be frightening out there," one casual longshoreman said. There is an incentive to be in a hurry. 

Pay starts for casuals when they actually begin work at a terminal, not when the job is assigned. Galindo, whose uncle was one of the first International Longshore and Warehouse Union members in the 1930s, regularly reported to the casual hall for seven years before she finally became a registered union member in December 1997. She was first selected as a casual in a 1990 lottery. There were about 8,000 applicants for 300 positions. 

Work was slow in the port at the time, and Galindo, a single mother who was also caring for her elderly mother, could only get dock work once every two to three weeks. She supplemented her meager casual income by working as a court secretary, a bartender and a jail matron for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In the mid-1990s work picked up, and Galindo was able to put in five days a week unloading steel, shoveling coal, lashing containers and tracking cargo as a marine clerk. "It was famine as many years as it was feast," she said. 

Nevertheless, casual longshore work is highly sought after. In August 1997, about 13,000 people applied for a few thousand positions. Application forms were in such demand, longshore workers say, that they could be purchased on the street for up to $500 apiece. Nearly two years later, the industry is still inducting and training 1997 applicants. One of them is John Bijelic, 28, an aerospace worker from San Pedro. "It's taken me almost two years just to get this far," he said. "It's well worth the wait. What do they say? Good things come to people who wait.

"Applicants like Bijelic must go through a sequence of tests and classes supervised by the union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. The process represents a significant change from the past, when unfilled dock work was dispensed from a back room at Local 13's dispatch hall. It was known as the "meat locker." Members of other unions in the harbor area could rely on it for work if they were unemployed or on strike. Over the last 10 years, however, the casual system has been totally overhauled, eliminating some of the unfairness in hiring, as well as safety and efficiency problems caused by untrained workers. 

The new approach gained particular momentum during the Union Pacific merger. To help clear a growing backlog of cargo, the shipping industry and the longshore union improved and enlarged their training programs to put casuals on the docks in unprecedented numbers.

"The meltdown really showed us the lack of skilled workers out there," said Philip R. Resch, a senior vice president for the maritime association. "We needed to make sure that we had an adequately trained work force to give us flexibility." Before casuals are allowed on the docks, they must pass a written exam and a battery of agility, lashing and truck driving tests. 

Casuals are required to pick up and park a 40-foot shipping container between two other containers and drive an obstacle course, all within 15 minutes. Lashing Test Is a Big Hurdle for Women They also must place and remove 18 lashing bars on a stack of shipping containers within 13 minutes. One dropped bar means failure. Lashing is one of the more arduous longshore tasks. Shipping containers are secured to the deck with heavy steel bars and turnbuckles, which must be placed
by hand. 

The longest bar is 20 feet and weighs 53 pounds. Turnbuckles weigh almost as much and can be hard to tighten if corroded. Working with such gear all day is like six to eight hours of pumping iron. The test is a major hurdle for women, because it requires upper body strength. Although the time has been increased from nine minutes to 13 minutes, many female applicants still fail. 

"Yeah, it's hard, most definitely," said Carrie Washington, 33, of Compton, who recently passed the lashing phase. Five of nine women in Washington's group failed, however. After the test, the four remaining applicants received a more detailed lesson about securing containers aboard ship from Laura Wright, a union instructor.

"You lash from the inside out. The bars shouldn't bend, and they should not bind against each other," said Wright, who then digressed to explain some nautical terminology for her students. "Never, ever, say 'stairs.' Say 'gangway.' And remember, it's a ship, not a boat."




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