The hours are unpredictable. The work can be hard and scarce. Nevertheless, thousands are expected to enter the local longshoremen union’s first drawing in seven years for 81 “unidentified casual” jobs to be held next month.
It typically takes years for a job lottery winner to become a full-fledged member of the Longview-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21. But for those who persevere, it’s one of the most generously paid union jobs in the country.
In 2016, the average total income for all classes of ILWU 21 longshoremen was $99,426, according to the Pacific Maritime Association. Union members at the ports in Longview and Kalama earned $47 per hour that year, the most recent year available for wage data.
Unidentified casuals, in contrast, operate on standby. They wait to pick up extra longshore work on a day-to-day basis. It’s essentially a fill-in position for when the local hiring hall has more work than regular dockworkers can handle. Opportunities are few: Of the roughly 3.2 million dock hours worked in Longview since 2011, just 3 percent were clocked by casual workers, according to PMA data.
“It’s a foot in the door in one of the best industries in the world,” ILWU 21 President Billy Roberts told The Daily News on Thursday. “But it takes a lot of work and dedication to advance in it.”
The process is intended to be as egalitarian as possible, and the official requirements are minimal. Applicants must be U.S. citizens at least 18 years of age and have a valid state driver’s license with no disqualifying convictions. Job hopefuls simply need to mail a post card sized 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches to an address in Portland. Resumes are not accepted.
“We try to give everyone a real shot,” Roberts said.
An ad for the position posted in The Daily News on Tuesday had generated more than 5,800 online hits by Friday afternoon — the last day to submit a public card for the drawing.
Winners will be invited for physicals. Those who clear the screening process will undergo training on how to operate longshore machinery. The drawing, to be held on or about March 16, will determine the order in which winners are invited to appear for processing.
About three weeks after the drawing, the list of those drawn and their drawing order — or “sequence number” — will be posted online.
August 2011 was the last time ILWU 21 offered the public and friends and relatives of union members the chance to become longshoremen.
That year, about 5,000 public cards were submitted along with a smaller number of “interest cards” that came through longshore industry referrals. Interest cards give longshoremen’s family and friends an edge. Ultimately, 232 cards were drawn — half from the public and half from inside the industry.
Once selected, longshoremen advance based on number of hours worked. Pay raises for casual workers are given according to 1,000-hour intervals.
“We’ve determined that the most equal way for everyone to advance is by hours, so we take individuals with the most work experience and advance them as quick as we can,” Roberts said.
Since 2011, the union has advanced about 15 workers per year to identified status, he said. Identified workers are generally guaranteed enough hours to survive without needing to hold down another job. Identified casuals are eventually promoted to class “B,” a status that comes with formal union membership and generous benefits. From there, workers are advanced to “A” status and a higher pay grade. Clerks and foremen, who also play an integral role on the docks, have their own unions. Payroll for all classes of Local 21 dockworkers last year was nearly $32 million.
ILWU local 21, which currently has 297 members, loses a relative few per year to retirement or other reasons. If the current pace continues, it could take about eight years to work through the next crop of unidentified casuals. Some workers from the last drawing in 2011 still have yet to achieve “B” status, Roberts said.
“They’ll just keep on going until they make it,” he said.
Casuals averaged about 1,100 hours of work last year, Roberts said, but sometimes unidentifieds only work a few dozen hours per year. (They need to work at least two shifts per calendar year to stay on the list.)
“That’s the current pace we’re on, unless there’s a work increase or something else happens,” Roberts said. “Everything fluctuates,” he added. “That’s the hard thing about explaining it: There are so many unknowns.”
When vessel traffic slows or the economy loses steam, the need for more regular union members declines.
“You don’t want to have too many workers and not enough work, so it’s a check and balance system,” Roberts said.
After unidentified casual lists reach a capacity approved by the union’s Joint Port Labor Relations Committee, remaining candidates are placed on a waiting list. They may then be used to fill future needs for possible placements.
ILWU 21’s next drawing is scheduled to be held in 2022.