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The plus of being a longshoreman is having a flexible work schedule...for the most part. That means I can take time off to enjoy my life.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lashing

As a longshoreman one of the first jobs you will encounter is the extra stevedore (aka lashing). It doesn't require any special skills, training or much knowledge at all to perform. That isn't to say that it's necessarily an easy job either. Like all jobs on the waterfront experience makes a world of difference. When I first started I really hated the job. Today I still avoid the job when I can. Really it's a job that will weed out those who can't make it as a longshoreman. As I had the "pleasure" of taking (or really being forced to take it since no other jobs were available) the job countless times, I got better at it. Now, I don't claim to be proficient at lashing, but at least I am decent at it and don't dread it like I used to. Now that I've got you all wanting do the job I guess I explain it.

Be prepared to get dirty. This means dawning coveralls or clothes you wouldn't mind throwing away afterwards. I personally have a pair of coveralls that haven't been washed in years specifically set aside for lashing. Throw on some gloves, a hard hat, and you're steel-toe shoes and you're ready to climb the gangway to the ship. Well almost ready. The only tool you will need (hopefully) is a lashing bar. Really it's just a piece of rebar that's been cut to about a foot and a half long. You're job as a lasher is to hook up the lashing. The lashing locks the shipping containers to the deck of the ship so that as they are rolling about in the Pacific they don't have any containers take a swim. For each container there are a total of four bars (each is about 8 feet tall and maybe 30 pounds) that connect to the top two corners of a container and the bottom two corners of the container stacked on top of the other container. Each bar connects to a turnbuckle (lock that you spin on a threaded screw to lock in place, each weighing about 35 pounds) which connects to the catwalk (raised platform between the stacks of containers on the ship). So basically all you do is connect the bars to the container, connect the turnbuckle to the bar and spin the turnbuckle till it's snug, then use that handy lashing bar we brought up earlier to further tighten the turnbuckle. On the containers closest to the sides of the ship there are two special bars that are about 16 feet high and about 50 pounds that need to be connected. Sounds easy enough. But try doing it with rusty gear, in the rain and cold for ten hours. Then tell me how how you're back, arms and fingers feel. Why pay for a gym member ship when you can get paid to work out? And as you can imagine it's pretty dangerous up there on the ship. Plenty of people get hit by bars that come loose. Slips, trips, and falls also are quite frequent, and I'm petty sure most of these ships aren't up to any safety code. Of course not every shift is quite so difficult and there are guys who love to lash. But they also know the ships that aren't horror stories, have a crew of seasoned veterans teaming up so no one is carrying others, and only take jobs on ships that aren't going have them there working all day long.        

Friday, April 1, 2011

Doing Laps

I guess I'll start off talking about the job I end up doing more often then not; driving semi. There are several names for this job like UTR (I forget what it stands for), yard hustler, and container jockey. Much of my time on the docks has been behind the wheel of a semi. As a B-man (second tier in the longshoreman hierarchy) we get second pick of the jobs after the A-men and are obligated to fill the skilled work like semi before non-skill jobs.

Just because you can drive a car doesn't mean you can drive a semi. While really quite simple there are several notable differences. Immediately you will notice the lack of visibility. There is no rear view mirror, so when hauling a container on your chassis (metal frame trailer with wheels upon which cargo containers are placed so that they may be transported)  you will rely on your side mirrors to see behind you. This can present some challenges when parking chassis especially in the rain. It's also really important to notice that the amount of space used to turn is much larger when hauling a chassis. Ever seen a semi driver on the road make a right turn? If you haven't or just weren't paying attention you would see them possibly taking up both lanes of the road to just barely make that right turn. That's because the trailer doesn't perfectly follow the semi. It follows a tighter turn radius. So if I make a turn too close to something my trailer I could run right into someone or something. Wide turns are your friends when behind the wheel. Probably one of the most difficult things to do in a semi is park a chassis. When I first started I was really quite awful at it. To get into a parking spot you must reverse into a space with maybe two feet on either side of your container. Doing this while the parking slot is on your left hand side is considerably easier because you can stick you head out the window and know exactly where your trailer is headed. But if the spot is on your right there are points in your turn where you can't see much of anything and really must rely on your own good judgement and experience to get you into the spot.

As a semi driver it's your job to transport containers. That could be from the ship to the yard or from the yard to the ship, and in other cases from the yard to another yard location. If you're working with the ship discharging containers to the yard, your first task would be to get a container from the crane (who is taking containers off the ship). Once the container is placed on your chassis you then drive out to the yard location assigned to the container and told to you by the checker. Once you get there you either park the container or line up at the spot and let the top pick (huge forklift that picks up containers from their top or roof and stacks containers on top of each other like legos or building blocks) take the can off you. You drive back to the crane and it all starts over again. You've done one lap. When loading the ship the exact opposite happens. As always there are thousands of small details about the job, but I think that pretty well sums it up.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Needs Tape

An invaluable resource for any longshoreman is the needs tape. It's basically a recording changed multiple times during the day to give us an idea about what the work will look like for the day (8am-5pm), night (6pm-3am), and hoot owl (3am-8am) shifts. When it's first posted at around 11am, we can call in and hear about how much work will be for tomorrow day, tonight and the hoot owl. It's then updated as things change and finalized at around 3pm. Calling the tape also allows us to know where the peg stopped for each shift. From listening to the tape we can determine how much work will be available, what ships will be arriving, and if the ship will possibly be called back (guaranteed job for multiple shifts) or be finishing (the ship will be leaving port after all the containers have been discharged and loaded). We can then know what job we want to choose when we go to the dispatch hall. Listening to the tape can be quite daunting if you don't know what to listen for. A lot of information is conveyed at a rapid pace and even I need to listen to the tape a couple times if the amount of work for the day is quite hefty. Things like the number of gangs (groupings of workers from different job categories designed to support each crane working), the name and birth (location on the dock) that each ship will be arriving or working at, and any extra info like if any of the gangs are called back or if a ship is finishing. Provided you are close enough to the peg and you do your homework, you can be where the good work is and perhaps get off work early if things go smooth. If you fail to interpret the work correctly you could be passing up a highly desirable job. If there isn't much work for the day and you are closer to the peg on the night side it may be advantageous to skip the day shift and come in for the night shift. You just gotta listen to the tape.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time To Peg In

As a longshoreman I don't have a steady job waiting for me every day (or night if that's the shift I choose to work). So before I actually head to work I need to "peg in." This means I have to show up at my dispatch hall to place my peg (a small cylindrical piece of wood) in the job board to indicate to the dispatchers that I am there and want a job. Then I wait my turn to pick my job from the dispatcher for the day. The board is a Plexiglas window which holds each longshoreman's name and registration number as well as a place to put a peg. Once it's my turn to pick my job and then have picked, the dispatcher knocks the peg out signifying that I have taken a job.The names are organized into rows just to make things easier for everyone to see. As long as a spot is open on the board, one is able to move their name to the spot. This way, when it comes time to pick jobs, you will be working with your friends and hopefully avoiding people on your shit list.

You aren't guaranteed a job when you peg in. Each day there is only so many available jobs. Longshoremen are responsible for the movement of cargo on the docks. So when businesses around the world are shipping fewer goods, we see less work. Some parts of the year it's not uncommon to only work three shifts in a week. Other parts of the year we work six or seven shifts a week. Work is given out in a linear fashion, meaning that if the person before me on the board is pegged in he will always get a job before me unless he got the last job the day before. Say there is not quite enough work for me today, and the master peg (which rotates through the names) stops in the person before me. That day I wouldn't get work, and the next day I would be the first person to get a job and also have my choice of the best jobs available that day. In this way we each get a fair (or as fair as possible) chance to get a job. Of course this system isn't perfect and if everyone gets a job ("the peg spins") for several days or weeks, you could end up getting last pick each day.

Fortunately, we also have the option to not show up for work (or not "peg in"). This has its benefits and disadvantages. There are however minimum hours requirements that need to be met. If you want more vacation hours or benefits you also need to work so many hours. If we feel like we need the money we can show up every day for work. If we want to take a long weekend to go on a little vacation we can do that. If we just don't feel like going to work for whatever reason, be it that we don't like the job we will get, or we want to hold out for a different shift where we are closer to the master peg. We also don't have any reliable way to know how much work is going to be available for the next coming days, so skipping a day could mean that the next day you come in you won't get a job because of a lack of available work. Most jobs are one day. Sometimes a job will be "called back" for a day or two, meaning that if you take that job you will have a guaranteed job for today and however many days the job is "called back" for. There is a lot of uncertainty in the life of a longshoreman but I know most of my coworkers wouldn't trade the job for any other.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"So... What Do You Do?"

When I meet someone for the first time, I invariably get asked this very question. I cringe everytime I get asked even though I should easily be able to answer. I didn't really know how to respond at first. Now I have a script that I just repeat trying not to sound like I know exactly what their response will be. But, without a doubt it always goes one of two ways. I'll reply that I'm a longshoreman. Most people will give me a blank stare and ask, "... a what? What is that?" Then I'm obliged to explain a job that they have never even heard of or have a vague understanding of in about 30 seconds, about the time it takes for them to get bored with my explanation. So in the interest of time and not wanting to hold an impromptu longshoreman 101 course, I just say, "I'm a dock worker. I do work related to the loading and unloading of cargo at the port." On a rare occasion I'll get a person whos relative is a longshoreman. Without fail they then say something like, "You make pretty good money don't you." And we do make good money and have generous benefits, but that is offset by dangerous work conditions and at times long hours or infrequent work opportunities. If you're making lots of money as a longshoreman you probably have been doing it for 20 plus years, are living on the docks, taking 7 or 8 shifts a week, and working both days and nights. We have a saying in this industry, "Only the strong survive."

I created this blog to shed a little light on what longshoremen do and to share some things about my life as a longshoreman. So if anyone has any questions or comments don't hesitate to leave your feedback. I'll probably post as I get ideas or get requests.

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