Commentary: Not a casual problem
In 2004, I was working for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and covered one of the more surreal episodes of my career.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union was granting 3,000 new casual longshoremen cards to a pool of applicants that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The cards were to be given away in a lottery that created a fervor throughout Southern California the likes of which I had never seen.
It may have been five short years ago, but it seems a world away now.
2004 was the year that a huge spike in transpacific containerized cargo hamstrung the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to such an extent that cargo began being diverted to other West Coast ports. It was a year when shortages of railroad equipment and dockworkers conspired to severely constrict the ports, leaving dozens of fully laden containerships waiting at anchor for a berth.
And half a million people saw it as their chance at a fortune. The lottery was a convoluted and controversial process, with the union constantly refuting claims that current ILWU members' friends and families were receiving preferential treatment.
In the end, the 3,000 people who got their casual cards (casuals are part-time longshoremen who take shifts that aren't taken by full union members) felt like they had won the state lottery, not simply an employment lottery. The reasons for their joy were simple: they had access to some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs in the world and a potential future in the longshore union (and all the perks that come with that). And best of all, they had this all in a place where business was booming.
Remember, up until this point, and for a couple years after, cargo volume through the Southern California ports was growing sizably each year.
As I read an article Monday in the Los Angeles Times about the current fate of these casuals, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the disparity between what I had seen and what exists now.
In 2004, I had been at that hiring hall where daily shifts were given out. Seen the hordes of workers saunter in and leave with their task for the day. Saw the cottage industries that sprang up outside the hall — food and fake DVDs, among other things. Saw the smiles on the faces of people who do some of the most important jobs in the logistics industry and get paid well for doing it.
Now? Not so much.
Volume through Long Beach and Los Angeles is down almost 30 percent from its heady highs, with more than a year and a half of continuous declines month-by-month. The volume isn't there to support the dockworker infrastructure that was set up to manage booming cargo trade.
On a visit to Los Angeles in May, I had heard from a couple people that work was so scarce that full union members weren't even able to get a full week worth of shifts. The casuals were lucky to get a shift at all. The Times article corroborates what I had heard.
In a normal situation, with work plentiful, the waterfront is an emotionally charged place. But in this situation, it's hard to imagine what the hiring hall and docks must be like as full union members vie amongst each other for shifts and casuals wait on the sidelines and think wistfully about their 'lottery tickets.'