Less than one week to go before contract expiration

“We are not considered anything”: West Coast casual dockworker describes working conditions at West Coast ports

Containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

At midnight June 30, the contract expires for 20,000 West Coast dockworkers at 29 ports. The contract battle is a major theater in the growing worldwide class struggle, which also includes strikes by dockworkers in Greece and Germany, a nationwide rail strike in Britain and a national truckers strike in South Korea.

Although talks between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been kept behind closed doors, both the employer and the union are working together with the Biden administration to avoid any disruption to the supply chain and prepare a historic sellout deal.

Around the world, conditions for workers are progressively deteriorating as inflation surges. On top of a global crisis, compounded by a pandemic left to spread like wildfire, the precarious and casual character of many jobs is creating impossible living conditions for millions of workers.

Dockworkers are no exception. While the mainstream media seeks to depict them as privileged, often earning $200,000 a year, the reality is very different at the docks. Longshoremen are stratified in three tiers, established with the 1960 Mechanization & Modernization (M&M) Agreement: A-men, B-men and casuals.

Designed by then-ILWU President Harry Bridges, the M&M placed at the disposal of the PMA a large pool of labor, a large portion of which is casualized, i.e., hired on the most precarious basis with no benefits or guarantees. In the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, while 7,300 workers are fully employed, another 7,000 casuals remain available at the employer’s beck and call.

The WSWS spoke to a casual worker who asked to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation. She will be referred to as Karen.

WSWS: Can you please tell us what you do?

Karen: I’m an ex-engineer/inspector. I quit my full-time job with benefits to focus 100 percent on being a longshoreman. I started as a casual: You go into the hiring hall; you put your plug on a board, and they go in order of rows. They call you to get a job. We are not guaranteed jobs. We have to fight to get a job, and sometimes we don’t even get work at all. The B-men are not guaranteed work either, but usually they do when they go in. A-men always have the opportunity to get work, and if they don’t want it, they have the option to refuse it.

As casuals, we do not get any benefits whatsoever. We are worked hard, and we are lucky if we get work. This year alone, I’ve made less than $10,000, and here we are at the end of the first semester. We’ve just passed the season of grain, and with everything going on with our lovely president [Biden] we have fewer ships coming in, so we don’t have a lot of work. A-men have work, B-men sometimes get it, but we have to fight for hours, that’s how we move up in the pecking order: when it comes time to be moved up to B[-men], whoever has the top hours gets to move up. At that point you get insurance, not the best, but it’s something.

WSWS: How often do you actually work?

Karen: We have to go in two times a day, seven days a week, to try and get a job. They just brought in a number of new casuals; that’s four times the number of those who recently moved up to B-men. So now we have an even tougher time to get a job because we have additional workers we are competing against. It’s almost impossible to work a second job unless you can find an employer willing to work with you and say: “Ok, go into the hall in the morning. If you don’t get a job, you can come and work for me.”

But even if you do find such an employer, then after working a long day for him, you still have to go to the hall at night to see if you can get those hours. It’s very stressful. Some of us have savings that we’ve put aside for this, some of us don’t. Some of us have two people in the household who can work to help the other person get through this process.

WSWS: How can casuals survive?

Karen: I am an independent person. I am alone, and I’m about out of my savings, at which point I’m going to have to go out and get a full-time job and try and work as much as I can, which means I’d miss hours. It could take me up to five years before I move to the B-status. I am forced through this or how would I survive and pay the bills? It’s kind of a feast or famine. It’s hard, it’s a tough road to follow.

I want to emphasize that casuals get no benefits whatsoever and are paid less. There’s also the question of what we call “travelers,” that is, dockworkers [A-men or B-men] from other ports who can come into our hall and take the jobs. The casuals who could have gotten those gigs are now out of jobs.

WSWS: How are the jobs dispatched?

Karen: When I go in in the mornings and afternoons, I put my plug in on the plexiglass board with our numbers. As they get jobs, they call it in the order it’s in. Now, if you’re not there to do your plugging, it’s called “burning,” and I’m not sure if they watch to see who shows up. I do know that when we put our plugs on the board, they record it.

At any rate, PMA is the employer and they get as many bodies in as they can, especially new ones because they don’t have to pay any insurance or benefits, they can work us harder and pay us less. We don’t get a raise. It’s not on a merit scale, where they do a review of your work. It’s based on hours, and I believe we get raises at 2,000 hours. I’ve been in for almost a year and I’m only up to less than a quarter of that threshold.

WSWS: Two dockworkers in the Los Angeles port died on the job this year alone. How is safety on the job?

Karen: There is a job called “flying,” and that’s when you get into a platform and you’re hooked into harnesses and they take you up, all the way on top of the containers, which are stacked six high on a ship. You have to get off to this platform and reach over the sides to unlock the locks. My concern with this is that the harnesses that you put on are never tested. When it comes to safety, you don’t know if they’re going to fail or not; and if you fall, you’re going to fall to your death. I don’t even know if they have a safety crew. I never heard “if you have any concern for your safety, go to so and so.” I don’t think so. To my knowledge there is no safety committee.

WSWS: What’s your experience with COVID?

Karen: The governor has dropped the mask mandate, except when we get shuttled by the “taxi” from one place to another. We have a limit of three passengers plus the driver, and we wear masks. We did wear masks all the time when the mandate was enforced. Now we don’t have to even inside the hiring hall. When someone gets COVID, if you were in the taxi with that worker, you get alerted by phone and you have to stay out two weeks.

But for casuals, it’s different. I bust my rear to work. Then if you get COVID, you’re out two weeks with no pay, and we miss the opportunity to get jobs. Is that fair? I don’t think so, but those are the rules.

WSWS: How do operations in other countries affect you?

Karen: As I mentioned, we have been getting less ships; we have less automobiles coming in, as well as container ships coming from Asia. Because of the strike of truck drivers [in South Korea] they have not been able to load the container ships to come here, which results in a reduction of jobs here as well. It’s a chain reaction all the way down from country to country.

WSWS: What do you think about the fact that Biden and the ILWU have been colluding since last year to avoid any disruption or strike?

Karen: We [casuals] don’t have any hand in it, we can’t vote, we have no say, we actually don’t even know what’s going on unless we find a publication that’s outside [mainstream media]. As for the contract, I have quite a few co-workers who are A-men. They say that it’s not going to be signed by the first of July because of too many issues at hand. I wish I could know more, get my hands on information, be up to date and know what’s going on. But like I said, they keep us in the dark because we are not really considered anything. Until we reach B-status, we are nothing.

WSWS: How about inflation?

Karen: The whole entire country is going through this gas crunch. A lot of us don’t live by the hall, and every time I go it’s a 50-mile round trip. Without jobs, I got no money and I got no gas. It takes a strong group of people to build a forum to be able to strike. But I can’t honestly say because I’m a casual, and I can’t overstep my bounds or I could be kicked out. It’s like a Catch-22.