In an atmosphere resembling a low-budget game show, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began the process Thursday of turning more than 300,000 applications from around the world into 3,000 high-paying dockside jobs.
Inside an auditorium at the L.A. port's administration building, a bin the size of a small school bus held hundreds of thousands of postcards mailed from across the nation and countries as distant as Serbia, Australia and Singapore.
The prize in this particular lottery: steady, nonunion jobs paying up to $28 an hour.
"Everybody I know has a card in that bin," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who was in the crowd of onlookers. "I've never seen anything like this."
Neither had the nation's busiest port complex.
Hoping to unsnarl cargo backlogs caused by an unexpected surge in international trade, the ports embarked on their biggest one-day hiring binge ever. Thursday's lottery was the first step toward enlisting the cargo handlers and truck drivers needed to fill that gap.
"We were thinking there might be 25,000 or 30,000 entries, but nothing like this," said James McKenna, the executive director of the Pacific Maritime Assn., a trade group representing West Coast shipping lines.
McKenna, acting as co-emcee of what had turned into an unlikely media event, stood shoulder to shoulder with his frequent adversary, International Longshore and Warehouse Union President James Spinosa.
Port workers who showed up to watch the proceedings were drafted as makeshift counters and monitors. Arbitrators, normally engaged in settling disputes between labor and management, were on hand to draw cards from the bin.
There were two drawings. First, 9,000 postcards from the general public were drawn from the giant bin. These entries were mixed in a big drum made specially for the event by union welders with an equal number of "industry" cards that had been handed out by union members and representatives of the shipping lines.
The arbitrators then drew an initial batch of 3,000 cards from the drum -- raw material for the first round of testing, training and hiring.
As promised, the first few hundred lottery winners were posted on union and maritime association websites by late afternoon, listed alphabetically and noting the ZIP Codes to help eliminate confusion among people with the same names.
All of the early winners were from California. (The websites are pma.smrn.com and www.ilwu.org.)
Lottery winner No. 256 was Frank A. Felando, a 19-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes resident who was working his way toward a business degree at Los Angeles Harbor College. But he had always harbored dreams of landing a job at the docks, as five of his relatives already had.
"I'm 19 years old and I already have an awesome job," he said. "I was just hoping to get into the docks and work my way through junior college."
Felando was a beneficiary of the industry cards -- the second, smaller pool of applicants with ties to the union and shipping companies. His card came from his aunt, Marla Felando, a longshore worker.
The decision to use the industry cards has spawned complaints that the hiring process unfairly favors friends of union members and shipping company employees.
One longshoreman filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the charge, but has taken no action.
Union president Spinosa defended the process, saying union members would be likely to know people who are already familiar with the work involved, allowing the jobs to be filled more quickly.
Once the initial 3,000 are hired, officials said they plan to keep 12,000 to 14,000 applicants in reserve in case they are needed.
"We haven't had our peak yet," said McKenna of the maritime association. "We are really just starting to ramp up for the Christmas traffic."