Just about everything in your life—food, cars, building materials—comes to Hawaii via the waterfront. We went inside the world of the longshoremen, who load and unload all that cargo, and found that centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines.
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I look over the meeting hall. It’s a serious day for the union—they’re debating some of the details for their upcoming contract negotiations—and many of the stevedores have crowded their folding chairs toward the front of the room to listen to what the leadership has to say. But there’s also an air of conviviality in the room, and I’m struck by the sense of brotherhood there. During the union meeting, stevedores move in and out of the room, greeting each other with warm embraces. There are still a lot of Native Hawaiians among the longshoremen, and they often pause to honi in the old-fashioned way.
I head downstairs to the parking lot where some of the stevedores are preparing food. I find Ward Mariani there behind a grill, carefully tending the shoyu chicken and teriyaki steak. Mariani spent 34 years as a cop, but he’s been a longshoreman for seven years, three of them as foreman on a wharf gang. He points out that, even with all the machinery, the docks can be hard on a middle-age man. “I wish I was a little bit younger when I got in,” Mariani says. “What helped me was I stayed in shape. Lashing is hard work. It takes a lot out of you.”
When the meeting upstairs finally ends, Lum comes down and introduces me to Karl Lorch, one of the most famous stevedores. He joined the longshoremen after more than a decade as a professional football player with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins.
Lorch knew people at Hawaii Stevedores Inc., one of the two big stevedore companies, so when his football career ended, becoming a longshoreman seemed like a good option. “It’s a hard job,” Lorch says. “But I went to school just to get by and to play football. This is a good job.” The ILWU is still a powerful union in Hawaii, so the wages and benefits are good for the stevedores. Although it’s dangerous work done in all weather, the basic laborer makes $31 an hour. Longshoremen often endure criticism for being overpaid, but, with the hours they work, they don’t make much more than other skilled blue-collar workers, like electricians and plumbers. Still, the longshoremen are sensitive about the subject.
Lorch also talks about the air of brotherhood I had noticed. “This is my first experience with a union—a real union,” he says. “Everybody’s like cousins, a big family.”
Lorch has been a stevedore for 18 years now. Normally, that would be enough time for a longshoreman to become a machine operator or a winchman, but Lorch remains happy on the wharf gang. “I started here when I was 40 years old,” he says. “I figured by the time I became a crane operator I’d be an old man. So, I just let the young guys go by.”
I ask Lorch what surprised him the most when he became a longshoreman. He thinks for a moment. “The first thing I noticed,” he tells me, “the pier is running 24 hours a day. With the lights on and the whole pier lit up, you’d think it was daylight. At 10 p.m., you’re just as awake as you are at noon.”
Listening to Lorch describe his early days on the docks, I think of something that a foreman on the wharf gang told me: “Just remember, at 2 a.m., when you’re home in bed dreaming, we’re down here. Moving cans.”
Dennis Hollier is a freelance writer with a real fascination for the hubbub of the waterfront. He writes about business, culture, science and the environment, but he can usually be seen staring wistfully out to sea.
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