Alma Bishop pointed to her rubber safety shoes. She got them through the union, and they can’t be bought at any ladies boutique.
A Giants fan and multi-generational San Franciscan, Bishop held a job as a union carpenter with the Local 22 before becoming a Longshoreman. A hard drinker who swears like a sailor and enjoys dainty jewelry, she embodies the often-forgotten, old-school working class of San Francisco.
Bishop is in her early 50s, tanned from the sun and relatively petite. For work, she wears a navy utility jumpsuit with reflective patches, zipped on the right- traditionally, the man’s side.
Once, a Longshoreman’s work was done by hand. Today, workers operate machines to unload cargo.
“We took the Oracle off at Pier 80, little by little,” Bishop said, referring to the America’s Cup boat. She also helped unload pieces of San Francisco’s incoming Central Subway.
Everything is gigantic in scale- the cruise liners docking and reloading at Pier 80, the cranes and forklifts used to pick containers off the vast ships and the ocean itself.
And everything is dangerous, from the huge paths the machines cut across the land, air and sea, to the heavy loads of cargo.
“When you go to work, you’re never promised tomorrow,” Bishop said. “A friend of mine just passed away, fell off the upside of a ship and was knocked with a pole.”
She tore her arm when a piece of machinery dragged her dozens of feet across the docks. She said the machine’s operator was too busy on his cell phone to notice.
“People are very selfish there,” she said of the waterfront, where the competition is fierce and distractions can take a life.
Six months after Bishop’s operation, the arm tore again. Since the accident, she has not been able to operate heavy machinery, forcing her out of the most lucrative jobs.
In a union, jobs are received by rotation. Only the highest-level workers, the A books, have their pick. The rest, including the B books like Bishop, the IDs and the casual workers, must go to the boards at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Hall on North Point and Mason streets, near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
A dock worker becomes a Longshoreman with a capital L if they’ve been accepted into the union. People sometimes spend decades as a casual worker before graduating to even an ID level. It took Bishop ten years to make B book.
“It’s almost like the horse races,” Bishop said of the scene at the boards, rattling off the different categories- whole board, dock board, crane board, “non-skill-can’t-drive anything board.”
The hall, a large, geometric building, looks like a retro spaceship from the outside and a bus depot within. Among other things, it’s known as a concert hall, where the legendary Trips Festival introduced the Grateful Dead to the masses in 1966.
The flex shift begins in the dark, at 6 a.m. Before heading to the boards, workers call the dispatchers for the day’s availability.
“Hello, brothers and sisters,” a smooth male voice began before launching into a list of vacant positions. “It’s feast or famine. Get it while you can.”
At the hiring hall, dockworkers receive numbers from the dispatcher on pieces of paper, and nothing is computerized. For the union, resisting technology means preserving dispatcher’s jobs.
Supposedly, Bishop said, if anything happens to her on duty, her children will receive her book, guaranteeing a lifetime’s work. The union harkens back to not just the socialist 1930s, but to a more ancient age of guilds and fraternal orders.
But union dues don’t come cheap. Members pay $250 a month, and are fined $50 for every missed meeting. For workers struggling to get consistent, well-paying work, the fees are high.
“But,” Bishop repeats. “They pay for your shoes.”