All a-boat the ILWU

Three years after the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, the ILWU was established. It still holds power today.

      With the strikes from SAG-AFTRA, the WGA, and the UAW, 2023 was brimming with talk of unions. So, for a change of pace, here’s the story of an acronym that you might not have seen in the headlines this year: the ILWU.

     The International Longshore and Warehouse Union largely represents dock workers along the West Coast of North America. The ILWU website explains, “We are dedicated to the welfare of our membership and to a better life for the people in the communities in which we live.”

     In case you weren’t familiar, longshoring is the work of loading and unloading ships. According to the University of Washington’s Waterfront Workers History Project, it is “a highly skilled line of work that involves careful balancing and weight management within ship holds.” It is incredibly taxing, as well as very dangerous.

     To learn more about longshoring and the union behind it, I turned to someone who knows longshoring like the back of his hand: my grandfather. Gilbert Valles, known as “Guillotine Gil” on the docks, was a longshoreman and later a longshore foreman for almost forty years.

     Growing up in San Pedro and Wilmington, California, my papa would see the giant maritime vessels come in. “It was very fascinating to me. Plus, my dad worked down on the docks. So, I would always have access to see those ships and they just fascinated me,” he explains.

     He started longshoring after he returned home from being drafted into the army in 1962. His work began at 26 years old, with the unloading of bananas on the stem. My papa talked about how the work he did was very difficult, but because he had “a lot of old-time guys that showed me a lot of tricks to move a lot of heavy equipment,” he felt lucky. “A lot of it is just the knowing how to do it. You don’t have to be like Superman,” he adds.

     For the longshoremen, each day of work could look completely different. Before my papa witnessed the shift from labor done by hand to containerization, he got to learn all sorts of interesting skills, including driving cranes, working in the hull, driving forklifts, and much more.

     However, he also stresses the importance of “learning how to get along with your fellow workers.” He explained this significance by describing the process of getting job assignments: “You don’t work with the same people every day. One day, you might work with guys for three or four or five days, if the job lasts that long. When it’s over with, you had to go back to the Dispatch Hall and you get another job. Well, you might not see those same guys again for God knows how long.”

     Despite this constant change, my papa’ favorite part of being a longshoreman was the camaraderie that the workers all shared. He explains, “We handled different cargoes from all over the world, and it was exciting. It was fun. A lot of it was really hard work at times, and sometimes it wasn’t so bad… It was enjoyable.”

     This whole idea of their camaraderie is quite evident in the story behind my papa’s longshoring nickname: “Guillotine Gil.” He shares, “That nickname was given to me by a friend of mine. When I walked into a lunchroom one day … there was a bunch of new longshoremen in there having lunch. So, this friend of mine jumped up as I walked into the dining room and said, ‘Hey, all you brand-new longshoreman, you better watch out. Because here comes Guillotine Gil and you do one thing wrong and he’ll chop your head off!’ … It went around the waterfront like wildfire!”

      Throughout his longshoring career, my papa had the support of the ILWU. He explains that it’s such a strong union due to its grasp over the ships in all the ports along the West coast of North America. “That’s a powerful chip for the union’s side,” he explains.

     By negotiating against the ship owners, the ILWU has helped to provide many benefits to the dockworkers. An example of this is the ILWU strike in 1971. It had to do with the threat to job security because of an increase in ship containerization. The union bargained to train the longshoremen on how to maintain the new equipment, and even though it was a rough time for all, the ILWU was ultimately successful in gaining this jurisdiction.

      My papa worked so hard, seven days a week, doing very difficult (and dangerous) work. Even so, he says, “(The ILWU) gave me and my wife, and my entire family, a great living and a great lifestyle.”

     Even today, my papa is still involved with the ILWU as he attends the monthly Pensioners’ Meetings, which provides updates on “what’s happening on the entire coast of the West Coast Long Shore,” as well as a “great big prime rib cookout” that’s held every October. It’s a big event, with live music, a full bar, and a longshoreman who cooks all the prime ribs on portable barbeques. “Everything is a very nice turnout and it’s good unionism (when) we come together like that,” he says.

     When it comes to unions in general, my papa believes they’re important to have, especially in terms of organization. “You have the people behind you to stick together and you challenge the employer … instead of them taking all the money for themselves. You know, it’s the workers that make the owners rich. So they should share some of that big profit with their workers. And that’s what unions try to do.”

     Despite the work being, at times, a challenge, my papa says, “I would not change or trade any part of my job for anything else after I’ve done it and I lived it… It’s probably one of the greatest labor jobs in the world, with high pay and the greatest benefits… To me, it’s the greatest job on the planet as far as working goes.”

     Overall, I had a really great time interviewing my papa about longshoring and the ILWU. And who knows, maybe even the next time you eat a banana, you’ll think about the longshoremen and their work.

     Finally, my papa would like everyone to know one of his favorite pieces of advice: “There’s nobody in this world that’s going to give you something for nothing. Always remember that.”

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Jim Marsoobian
Jim Marsoobian
Jim Marsoobian is the editor-in-chief for The Diablo Dispatch. Besides writing, she also loves cats, movies, mysteries, collecting, and listening to music! : )

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