Winners of Tacoma longshore jobs lottery begin journey to union membership

For 326 Puget Sound area workers, the journey toward one of the most generously paid union jobs in the country begins soon.

Those workers were the winners in a lottery that attracted more than 15,000 entrants hoping to eventually secure jobs as Tacoma Longshore Union members. Those jobs, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, last year paid an average of $156,000 a year for full-time workers. The PMA represents shipping lines, stevedore companies and marine terminal operators who hire members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast.

The lottery, whose results were announced Oct. 12, was the first opportunity for potential Tacoma waterfront workers to gain access to longshore jobs since 2013.

The union and the PMA are now contacting those winners, inviting them for health and physical capability screening. Those who pass muster will undergo brief training in the basics of working on the docks and operating machinery there.

Those who successfully complete that training will join the lowest category of longshore workers, “unidentified casuals.” The union operates a hiring hall on the Tacoma Tideflats. Daily job assignments are handed out first to what the union calls category A and B workers. Any work remaining goes first to casuals and then to unidentified casuals in the hall.

Neither the casuals nor the unidentified casuals are considered Longshore Union members. While they receive longshore wages for work they perform, none receives the generous benefits the A and B workers earn. Those benefits include 13 paid holidays yearly, up to six weeks of vacation for longtime workers, pension benefits that top out at $80,000 yearly for the most senior workers and a health care plan that in most cases pays 100 percent of medical bills and has $1 copayments for prescription drugs.

But securing that union membership and the perks that go with it starts with selection in the lottery.

Dean McGrath, president of Tacoma Longshore Local 23, said that typically only about 35 percent of those picked in the lottery will eventually become full-fledged union members. Many will give up their quest before the ranks above them need new members.

That’s because elevation from unidentified casual to casual and from casual to union membership is dependent on the demand for longshore workers. During prosperous times when maritime traffic is growing, said McGrath, work can be fairly steady for even those on the bottom of the hierarchy of workers. When traffic falls or the economy weakens, the work opportunities are few, and the need for more regular members falls.

“It took me 10 years as a casual to become a member,” said McGrath. During that decade in addition to showing up at the hiring hall regularly McGrath did a variety of jobs — teaching, painting and odd jobs to name a few.

“Sometimes it’s boom and sometimes it’s bust,” said McGrath recalling his years as a casual.

The need for this fall’s lottery was driven in part by retirements and moves by regular union workers and by the increasing demand for maritime labor in the Port of Tacoma. Now that the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have allied their waterfront trade business under the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the two ports only report combined cargo statistics. Those combined numbers show the two ports’ business in the container trade has grown by about 5 percent through September.

If the alliance is successful in attracting more cargo business to the two ports — the reason it was formed last summer — the demand for longshore workers could increase, speeding up the journey to the Longshore Union ranks for the 326 lottery winners.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663