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An Inside Job on the Docks

August 29, 2004

Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? The longshoremen's union managed to do just that with a move that drew 500,000 people into competition for 3,000 jobs at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles -- jobs that will ultimately wind up being filled largely by union cronies. Applicants for the $20-an-hour part-time jobs -- virtually the only route to membership in the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union -- were selected by lottery. A winning card could be a passport to the middle class. The average longshoreman earns close to $90,000 a year.

A lottery is supposed to give everyone an even shot. This one was rigged. More than 8,000 friends and relatives of dockworkers were allowed to skip the first round of selections and go straight into the final pool, giving them a 1 in 6 chance of landing on the applicant list, while those without a union connection faced odds of worse than 1 in 300.

The process was devised during weeks of negotiation between the union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines. An unprecedented surge in international trade has left the waterfront understaffed and cargo ships idling in the harbor. Because unloaded ships waste a company's money, the industry wants quick hires who are ready to work. The union wants strong, loyal members. "We have a very real interest in who the next generation of the workforce will be," said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the ILWU. "We need them to be good people who'll build the union, build the industry.... This work is hard, physical, dangerous. People inside the industry are more likely to bring in somebody who understands what's required and will stick around."

The Southern California union locals, considered the strongest in the nation, have been notoriously resistant to opening their ranks to outsiders. Until about 30 years ago, the only way to join the union was to be sponsored by a member. It took a series of lawsuits to force open the cargo bays to a handful of blacks and women. And because the union rarely adds new members -- it has been seven years since a large group of new workers has been hired -- competition is intense and advantage much sought after.

The ILWU is not the only union that controls hiring in ways that handicap outsiders. The movie industry and construction trades also practice the sort of nepotism that keeps advantage in the hands of a relative few. And it's certainly not the union's fault that a dearth of lucrative blue-collar jobs led to a flood of applications. But this lottery was smoke and mirrors, a sop to diversity that made the union look good and stoked the dreams of thousands, while business as usual reigned behind the scenes.

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