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Hard-hit longshoremen turn generosity inward

Traffic -- and work -- at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach have dropped dramatically. The union gives holiday handouts to needy locals, but this year it's helping its own members too.

December 25, 2009|By Ronald D. White
  • Martina Ronquillo of Long Beach shows off her new Polly Pocket toy at the union's holiday giveaway.
Martina Ronquillo of Long Beach shows off her new Polly Pocket toy at the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Several times, the small boy at the union toy giveaway looked over his shoulder at Steve Roldan and then back at the Hot Wheels V-Drop Super Velocity Track Set.

"Am I going to be able to keep this?" the boy asked. "Is this really mine?"

The longshoreman knew how the child felt. The 51-year-old had handed back his own prized possession, the first new car he'd ever bought, after work at the San Pedro docks dwindled and the car payments became too much to handle.

"If I had a Christmas wish, it would be to see more ships in this harbor," Roldan said. "People having the money to buy things for their families. It would be to see more work for everyone."

It's been a long, strange year for dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Theirs are among the highest-paid blue-collar jobs in the nation, paying $22 to $35 an hour.

But after years of steady 40-hour weeks at the harbor, plus overtime, Roldan is working only two or three days a week now, and many of his fellow members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are in the same position.

Part timers -- those who haven't yet put in enough hours to earn benefits from the union -- aren't working at all some weeks.

Those at the top of the union's pecking order are working but no longer have their pick of the best jobs. Some, like Mike Gonzales, are back to doing the most dangerous jobs they had early in their careers.

"I'm pretty much back where I started because the amount of work here has declined so much," said Gonzales, perched on a ship 100 feet above the water, lashing down cargo containers with 80-pound metal bars.

Reversal of fortune

For the last 20 years, longshore jobs have been among the most coveted blue-collar positions in America. As other sources of well-paid blue-collar work disappeared, longshore work thrived -- because of the same forces that were making those other jobs dwindle.

Factory work shifted overseas, primarily to China and other Asian countries, but then the big ships had to bring back the manufactured goods -- toys, electronics, clothing and cars -- creating longshore work up and down the West Coast. The ports of L.A. and Long Beach had 11 straight years of record cargo traffic through 2006, bringing a steady state of full employment to the docks.

There were the casuals, who would show up at an open hiring hall hoping for a day's work. After putting in 4,000 hours as casuals, they could register as Class B union members, paying dues and receiving benefits. And at the top of the heap, the Class A members had their choice of the best positions.

There was so much work that union members waiting for assignments at the dispatch hall could "flop," or pass up a job if it wasn't what they wanted, confident that something more to their liking would be available. They could also do "comebacks," or multiple shifts at time-and-a-half pay, without fear of squeezing anyone with less seniority out of work.

" 'Everybody eats today' was what the dispatchers would say when there were 400 or 500 jobs or more even for the casuals," recalled crane operator Lisa Tonson, 48.

But this year the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are on pace to handle about 11.7 million containers -- about 2.5 million fewer than last year -- and the hardships are piling up.

The depth of the sudden change of fortune, caused by the global recession, was brought home to union veterans like Tonson as ILWU Local 13 began preparations for its annual Thanksgiving turkey-and-trimmings giveaway to needy local families.

The ILWU has a long tradition of charitable largesse, quickly assembling relief packages for victims of faraway disasters such as the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 and tsunamis and typhoons in American Samoa, Indonesia and the Philippines.

But this holiday season it did something new.

"This year, the word came down from the union, we're going to help our own too," said Tonson, who is in charge of Local 13's holiday events committee, which organizes the Thanksgiving giveaway and an annual Christmas party for poor children.

"We were directed to offer Thanksgiving baskets to Class B members who were having a hard time finding work," Tonson said.

A hard adjustment

Whether because of pride or a sense of disbelief that their fortunes could have changed so much in just one year, many union families were reluctant to accept the donations, Tonson said.

Most have parents, uncles, siblings or cousins who also work on the docks, and some weren't thrilled with the idea of being the first in their families to need a holiday handout, she said. But in the end, Tonson said, 350 members took the baskets.

"This year has been a big struggle," she said. "People are discouraged. They are angry."

With 2010 not expected to be much better on the docks, she plans to start preparing next week for next year's holidays.

"I only hope there's enough work so that we can raise what we need to do this all again next year," Tonson said.

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