The Port of Los Angeles is the largest port in the United States. In 2016, 2,050 ships brought $272 billion worth of cargo to Los Angeles. The Port of LA is a crucial piece of importing manufactured goods from China.
A critical piece of this massive operation is the longshoremen, the workers who handle the loading and unloading of the ships in the port. The longshoremen and their union are so critical to port and its trade that they have the power to disrupt an entire supply chain. In 2002, during contract negotiations, the union essentially shut down the west coast ports as a leverage in their negotiation. This caused disruptions not only on the west coast but across the country where goods couldn’t be delivered and across the Pacific where the goods are made. This relatively small union has immense power over the import of goods in the United States.
Longshoreman jobs are coveted. Longshoreman can make more than $100,000 a year and receive free health care, but it is not easy to become a longshoreman. In order to get this dream of a blue collar job paying over $100k, you have to get into the dockworkers union, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
The first step to becoming a fully-fledged member of the union is winning the lottery. In order to get in the union, you have to become a “casual” worker. Casual workers do the same work as union longshoremen for less pay and benefits. To become a casual part-time worker you have to win a literal lottery. The longshoreman union held the first lottery, since 2004, for casual worker spots. This year 80,000 people entered the drawing and only 2,300 will be eligible for part dock work. They all entered with the dream of having the modern day unicorn, a high paying blue collar job. Just because they won the lottery, they aren’t guaranteed elevation to be a full union member.
As the Port of LA and other west coast ports become more automated, the number of dockworker jobs available will not go up. But they also will not go away entirely. Even in the automated terminals at the Port of LA, PAC, humans still have the operate the massive cranes that lift the containers off the ships. The need for the dockworkers will not go away, the demand will just decrease.
The longshoremen in Los Angeles are at the front of the globalized economy acting as gatekeepers of trade. They also have a what can feel like is missing in this globalized world, a well paying middle-class job.