Amidst the towering cranes, clanging cargo containers and massive ships on the Los Angeles and Long Beach waterfront are thousands of workers who keep the stuff we buy moving.
Here you’ll find the longshoremen: the dockworkers, crane operators and drivers who load and unload cargo from a docked ship – they can earn up to $100,000 a year with good benefits if they are in the union.
You’ll find the casual workers, who live paycheck to paycheck, waiting each day for their number to be called so they can get a job.
You’ll see the linesmen, who tie the ships to the docks with rope. Frosty is a linesman. He dropped his cell phone “in the drink” while he was tying up a ship. There’s Spinner, a former union leader, who has fought to protect the benefits and jobs for his union “brothers and sisters” at a time of big changes at the ports.
You’ll find women who years ago fought to join the union when it was still mostly a man’s world.
You’ll also come across oldtimers like Johnny O, a lines bureau dispatcher. He calls himself a pirate. His parrot, Bok-Bok, nuzzles in the crook of his neck and nibbles on his cigarette.
Leave the docks and head to Utro’s, a San Pedro cafe, where you can study the walls plastered with old photos of longshoremen, worn postcards, and newspaper clippings that tell stories about life on the waterfront. Behind the bar, you’ll meet Nancy Utovac, who arm-wrestled her sister to win her father’s spot in the union, and her brother, Joe, who took her to the union hall on her first day.
Everyone here has a nickname and a story.
Life at the Ports
Former Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles
Cargo is still our most important thing. It's most of our revenue, it pays our bills, but we gotta be creative about how we use the port for other types of things that can create jobs.
Geraldine Knatz sees a port complex in the midst of change and says the ports have to stay “chock full of people” to stay economically viable. She also wants everyone to understand the vital role the ports play in America’s economy. Knatz grew up close to the sea, coming from a “long line of Irish fishermen.” She started out as a marine biologist and worked in the water quality testing lab at the Port of Long Beach, which was the first in the country to have an environmentalist on staff. She stayed at the ports her entire career and retired at the end of 2013.
You don't need a college education to get this job, but you do need some tough skin and a lot of persistence.
You can’t just walk up and apply to be a longshoreman. Richard, who asked to keep his identity private, has been a casual at the Port of Los Angeles for ten years. Casual workers are the men and women who take the jobs that registered union members can’t cover. It’s like being a freelancer. There are no guarantees and no benefits. But it’s the first step toward joining the union. A worker needs to log 5,000 hours to be eligible to join the longshoreman’s union. Richard gets about one day of work a week. That’s eight hours. “I have bills to pay. I have a life to live, and this is one way,” he says.
Hear what it’s like to be a casual.
James “Spinner” Spinosa
Former President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)
Everybody is now realizing even more and more, they have to get trained for whatever jobs are going to be left.
James “Spinner” Spinosa has been on the frontlines of union organizing at a time of big changes at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. “Never, ever have we found ourselves able to stop technology, and we’re not going to,” he says, referencing a future in which automation and innovation mean fewer jobs. “There’s gonna be some pain here in the next few years without a doubt. How much? We’ll see.” Before the union was formed, workers faced dangerous and abusive working conditions. Things have changed since the early days of the labor movement, and the modern ILWU is a powerful organization. Some union members are the highest paid employees on the city’s payroll. Pilots, for example, earn more than the mayor or the chief of police. And all union members have significant benefits, despite ongoing tension and contract negotiations with the shipping companies that employ its members.
Learn more about big changes at the ports.
Supercargo, Matson Shipping
Women have been advanced to the top echelons of the industry on every level. They're bosses, they're crane operators, they're supercargos like me.
“My family has bridged the golden age of longshoring,” says supercargo Gretchen Williams, whose job it is to track the cargo as it moves through the ports. “Now we're being eliminated by technology.” Gretchen has been a member of Local 63 ILWU for 30 years, but her connection to the waterfront goes back further. She’s a third-generation union member who grew up on the docks. “When we were kids and used to complain about the smell of the cannery, you know. There's no fish industry here anymore, but somebody would complain about the smell of the cannery and my dad would say, ‘Smells like the people are working.’ People are working and that was important.”
Joe & Nancy Utovac
Owner of Utro’s Cafe & Marine Clerk, San Pedro
It seems like the influence on the port or working on the port is just very far reaching. I mean if you're not a longshoreman you're married to one, or your father is one.
Joe and Nancy Utovac are brother and sister and grew up in a family of five kids to a hardworking immigrant father. “He was called Hungry Matt and he would go to (the union) hall every day, and get out, or not get out, or try to get out, or drive to Hueneme or San Diego to get out to support us.” Nancy took over her father’s spot in the union as a longshoreman and is now a Marine Clerk. Her brother, Joe Utovac, took over Utro’s Cafe in 1976 and has kept it family operated ever since. Maritime trinkets, newspaper clippings and photos cover the walls of Utro’s. It serves ice cold beer and greasy food to fisherman, longshoremen and locals as it has for decades.
Former Linesman at the Port of Los Angeles
What do I love about the ocean? What isn't there to love about the ocean? That's the answer.
Johnny O has a hell of a story to tell. He grew up in San Pedro’s fishing industry, but it dried up. He was a longtime linesman before becoming a dispatcher in the lines bureau, a job, he says, that’s reserved for older workers or what he calls “antiques.” But he’s happiest on the ocean. “She’s my mistress,” says the self-proclaimed pirate. Johnny O’s parrot, Bok-Bok, often sits on his shoulder and tries to bite his cigarettes.
President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association
There are gonna be winners and losers at a port level on the West Coast.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association is a regional maritime trade group that represents ocean carriers, terminal operators, and other people that conduct business at ports in California and Washington. “Whatever we look like tomorrow, I think we’re gonna be different than what we look like 5-10 years from now,” says McLaurin, who wants to keep the West Coast ports competitive so it makes financial and logistical sense for cargo to enter through these channels. The shipping industry may be viewed as “kind of an old, almost a smokestack type of industry.” But it’s not, says McLaurin: “We’re in the logistics industry and it’s very cutting edge and it’s constantly changing.”
Harbor Pilot at the Port of Long Beach
Ever since there have been ships sailing the ocean there have been pilots.
Rob Lukowski, a pilot with the Jacobsen Pilot Service at the Port of Long Beach, comes from a family of boatmen. His job is to meet the enormous ships in the harbor, and steer them into the ports. As the ships get bigger, the job gets more challenging and pilots rely on technology and radar to smoothly guide their vessels to dock. “My dad was in the Coast Guard in the Navy during WWII. My uncle was a tugboat captain. My brother was in the Navy and was a tugboat captain and a pilot back in Baltimore and also piloted out here. My cousin is a Maryland docking pilot. My brother has a ship agency.”
This has been corrected to reflect that Capt. Lukowski works for Jacobsen Pilot Service at the Port of Long Beach Listen to Captain Lukowksi park one of the biggest ships to come into the port, the MSC Valeria.
Retired Marine Clerk
It opened up a door for me. It opened up a door for all the women. I think it opened the door for the waterfront.
Betty Jacobelly was one of the first women to be able to join the ILWU. She started as a part-time clerk in 1975, but wasn’t an official union worker until 1982. That year marks what is referred to as the Golden Decree, a court decision forcing the local marine clerk and longshore unions to have a membership that was 20-percent female. “A lot of the people that came in, we were all housewives and mothers and secretaries and people from working in the hospitals and even teachers. And it was a good job.”
Vice President of Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners
It was rough industry, you know, male dominated, guys peeing in the hatch, doing this, doing that.
Before serving on the Board of Harbor Commissioners, David Arian was a longshoreman, following in his father’s footsteps. He then watched his daughter fight her way through the system to become a dockworker. The culture has changed since the Golden Decree, a measure that set goals for hiring more women longshore workers. Now Arian has an office job. As a commissioner, he oversees the operation and management of the Port of Los Angeles, ensuring safe and fair working conditions. “Probably the biggest story in the port, you know, it's the high level of pollution, cancer and what workers have to put up with … and what has the industry, and what has the port done to really deal with that question?”