LA ILWU Local 13 Wilmington Dockworkers to say goodbye to a piece of history

LA ILWU Local 13 Wilmington Dockworkers to say goodbye to a piece of history
May 18, 2014 Updated May 21, 2014 3:27 p.m.
Ed White, 43, picks up an assignment from the window at the Local 13 International Longshore & Warehouse Union in Wilmington last week. The dispatch hall for casual longshore workers, open since 1948, is set to be vacated in July as the ILWU moves into new facilities a few blocks away.

For more than a half century, hundreds of dockworkers have pushed into a tiny dispatch hall in Wilmington to find out which terminal in the busy ports complex they’ll work in for the next few days.

They’ve sweated without air conditioning, struggled before dawn to find a parking spot on the crowded streets around the hall at 343 Broad Ave. and rushed to get in line for a job on the docks of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two busiest ports.

“It’s like walking into a zoo and chicken coop,” said 85-year-old Tony Salcido, a retired longshoreman who first went to the dispatch hall in 1949. “There’s a lot of pandemonium. As a newcomer, you wonder what the hell is happening.”

On any given day before dawn, 1,000 or more workers can pile into the dispatch hall to get their orders. Roughly 500 to 600 workers can get assigned to unload a ship of 5,000 containers during a period of four to five eight-hour shifts, according to Chad Lindsay, vice president of the Pacific Maritime Association’s Southern California region.

They line up behind big TV screens that list ships, the number and types of jobs needed, and when to report to work. Their names are called out over a tinny-sounding public address system. When his name is heard, the worker walks over to the dispatch window to pick up paperwork on where to report to work for the next few days, while the ship is at berth.

Some kill time playing solitaire at a king-sized picnic table; others shoot the breeze with the hall’s records clerk, Ray Pearson, in a back room. Still others head into the “meat locker,” a closet-sized room with a hole punched into the wallboard. You enter through a metal-plated door.

The meat locker is where dockworkers face a dispatcher at a banker’s window to iron out problems. The dispatcher, who takes job orders from terminal operators, clears up discrepancies in hours worked or resolves labor disputes. No one knows where the meat locker nickname came from.

“The system is very fair and accepted by all,” said Pearson, who once tossed tuna in a Terminal Island cannery years ago.

The ritual is all over in a few hours. Then it’s off to work at 8 a.m., or whenever.

This is the way it has been done since 1948, when the building first opened its doors and the workforce was significantly smaller. Jobs used to be written on a chalkboard, using a ladder. The chalkboards were abandoned in 2001, giving way to computers. One chalkboard still remains, frozen in time on Feb. 8, 2001.

In July, this slice of history will vanish as the yellow-stuccoed dispatch hall that bears huge murals depicting the history of the dockworkers union closes to the longshoremen forever.

This is when the union workers who’ve received dispatch orders for jobs will move a few blocks away. They’re headed to a $26 million building on 9 acres owned by the Port of Los Angeles at Alameda and Anaheim streets, according to Lindsay.

At the new hall, the system is similar, but there’ll be 60 TV screens and overhead projectors – some as big as 100 inches in size. Bose speakers will be used for the new PA system, and the meat locker has been replaced by a large conference room that has a corporate-sounding nameplate reading “service counter.”

The new hall will have 200-plus trees planted to act as “heat shields on the asphalt,” solar panels to supply electricity, showers and a wastewater treatment system designed to recycle water.

The PMA, which paid for and built the building, is a management group that represents 72 shipping lines on the West Coast. The deal calls for PMA to pay for construction, theILWU to run the hall and the Port of Los Angeles to own the land underneath. The Port of Long Beach shares in the dispatch hall’s functions.

The 32,565-square-foot building is nearly four times as big as the old one. The old building has a capacity of 800 parking spaces, and the new one can take nearly three times the dockworkers, Lindsay said.

The PMA also owns a small building on Eubank Avenue in Wilmington, which is used as a secondary hiring hall for overflow work and part-time union casuals.

The PMA is expected to give the acre of land to the Port of Los Angeles, then move operations into the current ILWU dispatch hall when it becomes vacant.

“The new hall is set up for future growth,” said Mark Williams, secretary/treasurer of ILWU Local 13 in San Pedro. “It’s so big a basketball team could play there.”

Lindsay explained that the dispatch hall is where terminals fill orders for workers in a fair way. Think of the movie “On the Waterfront,” a 1954 film about union violence and corruption among longshoremen where employers picked favored workers to fill jobs.

The ILWU fought under union boss Harry Bridges in the 1930s for what it calls “low-man out,” a process in which workers with the fewest hours are given first priority for jobs. They’re required to check in by phone or at a kiosk set up in the hall.

“I knew Harry Bridges since I was a kid,” said David Arian, a Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioner. “Bridges visited the dispatch hall and walked about and attended caucus meetings.”

Arian followed in the footsteps of Bridges as a longshoreman in 1965. He served as an officer of the ILWU Local 13 many times. In 1991, he was elected international president of the Oakland-based ILWU, which represents 13,600 West Coast dockworkers.

For the thousands of workers who’ve passed through the hall, some say it’s as sacred to them as a church.

“This is where I’d throw myself on a spear to preserve the distribution of jobs equally,” Salcido said.

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