For 66 longshore workers, last Thursday’s ceremony inducting them into Longshore Local 23 as full-fledged “A”-level workers was both a right of passage and a tangible sign that the lean times that the Port of Tacoma and the union have endured for four years are finally fading.
It’s now less than a month before the first containership, the Dusseldorf Express, owned by the port’s newest customer, will call on Washington United Terminals on the Blair Waterway. That customer is the Grand Alliance, a consortium of three shipping companies, NYK Line, Hapag-Lloyd and OOCL. Those three shipping lines are moving to Tacoma from the Port of Seattle.
“It’s a real game changer for us and the port,” said Scott Mason, ILWU 23 president.
Mason expects the arrival of Grand Alliance will generate hundreds of jobs for Tacoma and the union.
That’s part of the reason that Local 23 is elevating 66 “B” workers to “A” status. The volume of new work will support more full-time positions. And that increased workload will be reflected throughout the union ranks down to the casual workers and even to potential longshore union workers whose names were picked in a lottery six years ago. Some of those workers’ were held in reserve awaiting more work.
“I think we’ll eventually activate all 1,800 of those names that were picked,” said Mason.
Dick Marzano, Port of Tacoma Commission president, said he expects the Grand Alliance will generate a volume of some 450,000 more container units a year. That increase in business could put the port’s volume over two million container units next year. That’s the same territory the port reached before the recession hit and a big customer, Maersk Line, moved to Seattle three years ago.
In addition to longshore workers who will load and unload the containers from the new customer’s ships, new longshore jobs are opening for technical workers who will maintain the increasingly complex computers and machines used to operate a highly automated container terminal such as Tacoma’s WUT.
Mason expects the terminal operators and several subcontractors may hire as many as 175 mechanics and technicians.
The Pacific Maritime Association, the longshore union, the terminal operator, and the port are scrambling to train workers to operate the new equipment the new operation will bring to Tacoma.
The terminal operator, Hyundai Merchant Marine, last week unloaded eight rubber-tired gantry cranes from a heavy-lift ship from China. The cranes will introduce a new method of container-handling to the large terminal. The cranes will allow the large shipping containers to be stacked four-high and wide for storage. The cranes will allow more containers to be stored on the terminal than the present system. Longshore drivers are now being trained to drive the new machines.
WORKERS BY THE NUMBERS
The influx of new business will once again give longshore workers a path to move upward in the ranks as more work is available for regular workers.
Longshore union members are dispatched out of a union hall with “A” workers having first priority for jobs, followed by “B” workers and finally by the “C” or casual workers.
The casual workers receive no benefits and have no guarantee that there will be work enough to keep them working steadily. But there’s a powerful incentive for the casual workers to show up regularly at the union hall. Under a union rule, the casual workers who show up at the hall the most regularly looking for work are the first to be advanced to the “B” ranks where there are benefits and steadier paychecks.
Those paychecks are among the highest in industry for blue-collar work.
New figures from the Pacific Maritime Association show that the average Tacoma longshore worker last year made $96,817. That figure includes vacation and holiday pay for “A” and “B” workers as well as mileage and expenses when longshore workers travel to other ports for work. The PMA represents the ports, container terminal operators and shipping lines that employ longshore workers on the West Coast.
In Seattle, the average longshore worker made $95,033 last year. In Olympia, where ship calls are less frequent, the average longshore worker last year made $78,149.
Skilled mechanics and maintenance workers typically receive about a 30 percent premium over the average longshore wage of $45.38 an hour, said Mason.
Longshore clerks, who track the details of container and cargo traffic, bring in even higher wages. Tacoma’s 92 working longshore clerks last year brought in gross paychecks averaging $141,772, according to PMA figures. Longshore foremen received even higher average compensation. Washington’s 109 longshore foremen received paychecks of $198,525 on average, according to the PMA.
Longshore workers have 13 paid holidays and generous vacation, medical and retirement plans. The retirement plan, for instance, pays retired workers $160 per month for every year they worked as a longshore worker. Those retirement benefits are capped at $5,920 per month for workers with 37 or more years of service.
The medical plan is provided with no premium payments from the longshore workers. The yearly family deductibles are $300 with a maximum yearly out-of-pocket payment for the worker of $1,000. Longshore workers receive prescriptions for a $1 co-payment per prescription.
With such attractive pay and benefits for “A” and “B” workers, enduring the uncertainty of job availability as part of the casual workforce, may have its rewards, particularly in times of job growth, said Marzano, a longshore clerk and former union local president.
Now with the new Grand Alliance business, some casual workers who quit showing up at the union hall when jobs were scarce may face a difficult decision: quit their steady, benefits-paying job to resume their vigil at the union hall in hopes of finding ample work and a swift upgrade to “B” status, or stay with their present job where the pay is not as attractive, but the checks are regular and benefits are available.
Marzano said he spent six years as a casual years ago before he was promoted to the “B” ranks.
Mason said his own son-in-law is on the casual list. The new influx of business may allow him to finally get a chance to join the union ranks.
“At last, there’s hope,” said the union president.