Oakland Tribune – March 2008
On a Friday in February, Theo Earle Frazier worked on a stack of containers atop the deck of the APL China, a 66,300-dead-weight-ton vessel docked at Terminal 62 at the Port of Oakland.
Frazier is a longshore worker. It’s a job many people seem to covet, but it is a hard one to land and it takes years to make a living at it full-time.
Frazier figures he was among 20,000 people lined up on a near-riotous day in 1996 when the PMA — the Pacific Maritime Association, which employs longshoremen — was accepting applications for new workers. The response was so overwhelming that the PMA had to call a halt to the application procedure, Frazier recalled.
He was already in his 50s on that day in 1996. Frazier, now 64, wanted the longshore work to supplement his income. An ordained Pentecostal minister with seven children and four grandchildren, the extra job was important to him.
The wages are good: Beginning longshoremen earn about $22 an hour, according to the PMA wage scale, while experienced workers — those with 4,000 hours of service or more — can take home $30 an hour. Overtime can boost hourly pay to $50.
Still, longshore work is spotty. Approved workers may wait days at the union hall before they are called to the port for a job.
And the work is very dangerous. In 2007, twoworkers died in accidents at the Port of Oakland — a risk Frazier knows too well: His stepfather, also a longshoreman, was killed in 1973 when he was hit by a container and knocked off a ship.
Regardless, Frazier was willing to wait for his chance to work at the port.
It was seven years before he heard from the PMA again.
“I thought they had forgotten about me,” he said.
PMA contacted him in 2003, and Frazier is now a member of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Frazier works two to three days a week when vessels dock at ports in Oakland, San Francisco, Benicia or Richmond.
Frazier, like other union members, works an eight-hour day when he’s called for duty. He averages about $250 a day.
But there are plenty of opportunities for overtime. If more than one vessel is in port at one time, Frazier said, there may be the chance to work a double shift, or a night shift, which pays an extra $100 on top of the regular hourly wage.
Dock work is Frazier’s only paid employment, but he’s an active volunteer in the Businessmen’s Fellowship, the Faith-based Coalition and the Black Americans Political Association. Plus, he works in the Voice of Pentecost Christian Church in San Francisco, where he is an ordained minister.
On that day in February, Frazier, who lives in San Francisco, reported at 6 a.m. at the dome-shaped ILWU union hall near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. He waited with about 200 other union members for his number to be called for an assignment.
Frazier was among the last few workers waiting in the union hall when he was called at 7 a.m. and assigned to the task of lashing containers. Then he drove to Oakland to be ready for an 8 a.m. shift at APL’s Terminal 62.
A longshore worker, or stevedore, loads and unloads cargo from ships and transports that cargo around the dock area. He or she (yes, there are female longshore workers) must also be able to operate the forklifts and tractors that transport cargo on the terminal. In ports that welcome cruise traffic, longshoremen also haul luggage on board and off.
A dock is not a serene place. Swarming with noisy, rolling, large machinery, terminals are perilous places to lose your focus.
Gus Fashanu is APL’s safety manager on Terminal 62. He keeps order on the dock by walking around.
“I don’t feel comfortable with you not wearing your safety vest,” he tells one colleague, referring to the bright yellow vest that makes a worker easily visible on the docks.
“A lot of people get complacent about safety,” Fashanu says later, “so I go about walking around making sure people are putting safety first before production.”
On that day, Fashanu was especially alert because two ships were at Terminal 62, and each required 22 tractor drivers and a crew of 60 people to offload their cargo. Fashanu enforced speed regulations and traffic patterns on the terminal teeming with trucks, tractors and pedestrians.
Containers — those 20-foot- or 40-foot-long boxes in which cargo is sent by sea — stack as high as nine layers on container ships (counting from below the hold). They can tower six-containers high above deck — about the height of a 10-story building — but no more than that, or else the captain can’t see beyond the bridge.
On this day, Frazier is assigned to the APL China, a vessel with the capacity to hold 5,000, 20-foot-long containers — still not the largest around today.
The loading and unloading process is fraught with peril, as cranes some 300 feet in the air are manipulated by an operator sitting in a cab at 124 feet. The operator instructs the crane to lift containers, weighing up to a ton, high into the air, where they are suspended above workers’ heads before they are lowered to the dock or on deck.
Each box has to be secured to the ones above and below it and to the vessel. This requires tools called a cone, a lashing rod and turnbuckle. The cone, which bears absolutely no resemblance to a geometrical cone, varies in shape and can range from 1 pound to 10 pounds. Cones are attached to each corner of the container to help secure the containers to each other.
Once onboard the ship, the longshore worker must release the container to be unloaded. To do this, the workers must first remove the lashing rods to unlock the cones from the containers. These hefty rods can vary in length and can weigh from 20 pounds to 50 pounds.
After the lashing rods are removed, the crane clamps onto the container from above and hoists it away.
Throughout it all, the worker is maneuvering on a catwalk between stacks of boxes, or standing on the perimeter near the side of a ship, with a drop of several stories to the water below, depending on how much the ship is loaded.
“There’s the sea on one side and the dock below,” Frazier said.
Neither is a good place to fall.
To load a container on a ship, the worker follows a reverse process: The longshore worker wields a heavy steel rod that he locks in place diagonally across the end of the box. With a device called a turnbuckle, weighing about 40 pounds, he screws the rod tightly to attach the box to the vessel.
Wielding a turnbuckle requires significant muscle, all while the worker is balancing on a narrow catwalk that runs between the stacked boxes.
Such strenuous activity may appeal to those who enjoy exerting themselves in the open air and being exposed to the elements.
But Frazier notes, “If you’re at the end of the ship facing the rain, or a gust of wind is in your face, and you’re holding a rod, you have to be prepared to let it go.”
That is, release it to the wind and the water rather than risk being swept away.
Indeed, the work can be dangerous.
Between 1997 and 2007, according to union records, 26 West Coast workers died at their jobs, including eight in Northern California.
The Port of Oakland lost two in 2007. Reginald Ross, 39, of San Francisco, was lashing a container Sept. 24 and was killed as it was lowered into place, and Edward Hall, 47, also of San Francisco, was struck and killed Dec. 3 by a tractor-trailer.
Still, Frazier said, deaths don’t tell the entire story.
“Near misses don’t count,” he said. “And we have daily constant near misses that require us to be alert and cautious all the time.”
Last year, he said, a colleague lost a hand when a container was dropped as he reached out to align it to the chassis of a tractor. His wife, also a longshore worker, was injured in a separate accident the same year, Frazier said.
Survival, Frazier said, is not so much a question of strength as one of balance, self-control and alertness.
Frazier said some of his colleagues celebrate at the end of their shifts just to have made it through the day.