A Harrowing Account of Working on the Docks

Longshore workers like this Long Beach swingman make their living by moving huge, heavy, dangerous cargoes in all weather—while shippers, who reap the big profits, paint workers as thieves. Photo: Fred Alvarado (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In this excerpt from a letter to a Seattle talk-show host, Long Beach longshore worker Vivian Malauulu vividly describes the daily hazards of port work life. You can read a longer version in the Washington State Labor Council’s online publication, The Stand. Read more about the standoff between the major shipping companies and 20,000 West Coast longshore workers here. –Editor.

This is MY reply to Dori Monson, host of a self-titled talk show on Seattle’s KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, who referred to longshore workers as “thieves” and “criminals” in a segment aired January 20.

Dear Mr. Monson:

My name is Vivian, and my husband George and I have been married for almost 17 years. We have four children ages 6, 9, 12, and 14. Our family lives in Long Beach, California, and we do just about everything within a 10-mile radius of our home.

We shop at local stores and frequent nearby restaurants, our kids attend area schools, we worship and serve the children’s ministry of our church, we support our local parks and recreation by allowing our children to play sports and by coaching their teams, and we participate in a wide range of community activities…

Yet I heard a radio broadcast in which you referred to us as thieves. THIEVES! You also called us criminals, even though neither one of us has any criminal history. All because we are longshore workers…

When my husband comes home at 5 a.m. after 10 hours straight of lashing dozens of containers to bug-and-germ-infested vessels, with bruises all over his body and an occasional broken finger, all so consumerism the world over will continue through one more “peak season,” the last thing I would call him is a thief.

His modest wages do not compare to the ridiculous profits enjoyed by the steamship owners—who barely pay the shipmates, working those vessels for six months straight without leave, enough for a weekly bag of rice in their native countries.

When he came home with blood crusted around a two-inch gash on his scalp from hitting a low-lying bar while crawling on his hands and knees untying cars for eight hours in the hold of a six-story auto carrier, or when he had to have metal particles surgically removed from both of his eyes after cleaning up the chutes and tunnels of the largest coal dock on the West Coast, calling my husband a “hard worker” would have been more appropriate than calling him a criminal.

HAZARDS AND HARDSHIPS

Let me tell you about some of the hardships I have endured while working on the waterfront, and then you tell me if you still think I’m a thief or a criminal when I’m done.

For many nights in a row, I often drove a forklift in reverse, carrying pallets of fruit through narrow passageways in large, freezing cold, rodent-infested warehouses, with chemical preservatives dripping on me from the low-hanging tarps above me, and surrounded by unstable boxed piles I couldn’t even see over.

What about the nights I moved humongous, unsteady cargo like coils, pipes, plates, and tires across uneven terrain and stacked them perfectly in the dark, with nothing but the dim light of my heavy lift to guide me? Was I a thief then—sometimes moving 500 pieces of steel that would only take ONE small piece to maim or kill someone if it slid off my lift and landed on a dockman working nearby?...

We work in an environment that is uber-dangerous to the Nth degree. Injuries on our jobs are not paper cuts and stress headaches. We lose limbs, and we lose lives.

We suffer from chronic pain due to repetitive motion. Our bodies show evidence of years on the job in our posture, our gait, and our immune systems. Most of our retirees leave the industry with partial, if not total, hearing loss, and many of our colleagues injured on the job are often permanently disabled.

We work around equipment with large moving parts, around the clock (24 hours a day, for 361 days of the year) in every possible type of inclement weather you can imagine. We inhale cancer-causing toxins from vessels, trains, big rig trucks, cranes, and highways every second that we are at work.

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Our crane operators have to “hold it” until their shift ends because the closest bathroom is 90 feet beneath them.

THE REAL THIEVES

If you want my honest opinion, all things considered, we should be compensated more for the hazards we endure, when compared to the profits we make for the executives who operate the terminals…

The average $75k our workers earned last year—working our butts off five to six days per week, eight to 10 hours per day, climbing slippery gangways, hoisting greasy lashing bars that weigh more than 50 pounds each above our heads until they lock into tiny holes on containers, and being tethered to a cage 100 feet above sea level while lying flat on our stomachs on top of a seven-high container ship looking down into the dark waters of the Pacific while unhooking safety lashing pins with our bare hands—is nothing, NOTHING compared to the $900k the president of the Pacific Maritime Association earned last year sitting behind a mahogany desk trying to figure out how to exploit more foreign workers by cutting more American jobs. Now THAT is criminal…

You tell me, who are the real thieves? The hardworking men and women who risk their health and lives DAILY to move goods in and out of our ports, or the machines that terminal operators are trying to replace us with?

Robots will not dine at local restaurants and buy supplies at your neighborhood stores. Robots will not teach your kids in Sunday school or coach your kids at the park… Robots will not stand up for any worker, anywhere in the world, to defend him against unfair practices from his employer. But the hardworking men and women of the West Coast ports will, and do.

AN INVITATION

You also mention that we display a lack of effort while on the job. Have you ever stepped foot on a West Coast terminal and watched us work? Mr. Monson, I’d like to invite you to join us at work one day… I’ll even offer you the choice of which job you’d like to take.

Would you like to stand all day on a dock facing away from a giant vessel while seven cranes move containers on and off the ship to and from utility tractor rovers—as many as 60—which are driving past and all around you while you remove universal stacking cones from cans as they are suspended by thin cables right above your head?

Maybe you’d prefer to stand on the hatch of a ship in the pouring rain at 3 a.m. while the rough waters below rock it back and forth, making sure your lashing crew is safe and the catwalk is not too slippery for the heavy gear all around you.

How about if you crawl down four stories deep into a break bulk cargo ship at 1 p.m. in the heat of the day, to degrees above 130 F, and untie fastening belts and undo hooks and then stand absolutely still, holding your breath against the hatch, while a wench claw grabs the cargo and hoists it directly above you, knowing it could snap and kill you if something went wrong?

EVERYDAY HEROES

You sound like the type of guy who can easily climb 300 steps vertically in a narrow shaft to get to a hammerhead crane and then execute 250 moves perfectly from a glass-enclosed cab that trollies back and forth and gantries side to side every second you’re up there, while as many as 100 of your brothers and sisters work directly below you, utilizing unbelievable accuracy to load a 30-ton container precisely, because if it falls, people will die.

You will be paid minimum wage for doing that, because you are the type to purport that our salary should be commensurate with experience.

If none of these longshore jobs interests you, we can offer you at least 50 more from which to choose—but I warn you, they are all dangerous and they all require dexterity and skill unlike any required for your radio job. I know, I worked in radio and I left my on-air job for longshoring…

My union brothers and sisters—many of whom are VETERANS—and our fellow working Americans are neither thieves nor criminals. We are everyday, working heroes... You owe ALL OF US an apology.

Vivian J. Malauulu is a longshore worker in Long Beach, California, and serves on the executive board of ILWU Local 13.