Future unclear for hallowed longshore hiring halls

By Leslie Gornstein AP Business Writer
Monday September 03, 2001

WILMINGTON – Wedged into a blue-collar neighborhood by the sea and partially walled off by cinder blocks sits an unlikely memorial to one of the bloodiest labor strikes in U.S. history. 

Hiring halls like the one for International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13 are among the most important prizes won by Depression-era dockworkers who were beaten, shot and tear-gassed while picketing for better conditions on July 5, 1934. 

Now the dockworkers’ employers at the Pacific Maritime Association want to scrap the halls in favor of a call-in or Internet-based system they hope would boost productivity by 30 percent or more. Union members say they won’t let it happen. 

The issue is expected to be a sticking point when the longshore workers’ contract with West Coast cargo carriers ends in July. 

The carriers deal with every western port between Canada and Mexico, handling cargo that represents an estimated 7 to 9 percent of the U.S. economy. Among other goals, the companies want to install equipment that would speed the movement of cargo and better track containers. 

They also hope to shorten training periods and improve safety by having dockworkers take permanent assignments from individual employers, rather than getting a new employer with each shift, as is currently done. That proposal would eliminate the need for hiring halls. 

“Our average start time on a ship is 15 minutes to half-hour late,” PMA president Joe Miniace said. “That translates into a lot of lost productivity over the course of a week, month, year.” 

Union members retort that the halls are the heart of their organization, and without a gathering place union locals would lose strength. 

“The chances of doing away with the hiring hall is absolutely zero,” said Gig Larson, a business agent for ILWU Local 32 in Everett, Wash. “The employers would have to pay us so much money it isn’t even funny.” 

Larson said he doesn’t like to imagine what labor legend Harry Bridges would think of the proposal. Bridges, who led the rank and file during the 1934 strike, is still remembered during the union’s annual Harry Bridges Day. 

“He would roll over in his grave if we gave up the hiring hall,” Larson said. 

During the pre-hiring-hall era, men stood by the waterfront for days, seeking work from foremen patrolling the area. 

The foremen, known as “little dukes” because of their influence, demanded bribes and even sexual favors from workers’ wives before offering assignments, according to historians. 

“It was almost like a slave market and was deeply resented,” said David Wellman, a sociology professor and author of the book “The Union Makes Us Strong.” 

“In modern sociological language, it would be called a ritual of humiliation. To get work, you had to humiliate yourself,” Wellman said. 

After 1934, the halls eliminated that corruption by giving the union more control over work assignments. The system grew democratic, with union members who had logged the fewest work hours getting first dibs on new assignments. 

Today roughly one-third of the nation’s unions, mostly in the building and construction trades, use hiring halls, according to the AFL-CIO. 

At Local 13, workers gather to play poker at a cafeteria-style table and smoke cigarettes under a “No Smoking” sign when not seeking work. 

Last month, the Local 13 longshore hall handed out 20,000 individual assignments, using a squadron of dispatchers on headsets to announce jobs ranging from carpentry to crane driving. 

“The system works, and it keeps everybody in a balance,” said Local 13 President Ramon Ponce de Leon Jr. 

Miniace said he respects workers’ feelings about the halls and is willing to keep them open during heavy work days. But he’s also determined to bring what he calls an out-of-date system into the new millennium. 

“As we move into a new century, we have to adapt to a new environment,” Miniace said.