For the sake of anonymity, some names in this story have been replaced.
“Attention members of Local ILA 1317, we’ll have a 7:30 a.m. shape up for 35 guys.” The sound comes through the speaker of John’s phone at 9:00 p.m. Sunday night as he prepares for the next day’s work. John works in one of the country’s oldest and most unfamiliar professions; he is a longshoreman who works in the Port of Cleveland unloading ships. His work is hard and his days are long. His gang is a tight-knit group of men who share pride in their work and their long family history of union maritime labor. Most guys who work for the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1317 are one in a long line of longshoreman. John is no exception: his grandfather, father, and uncle all work or have worked in the port.
John’s day starts like anyone else’s day. Like you, he wakes up early. 6:30 a.m. to be exact. Unlike you, he is unsure if he will have work that day. As a day-laboring longshoreman, he must be hired to work each day. No day’s work is guaranteed and at times, he could go weeks without work. On this day, he hasn’t worked for over two weeks. John pulls up to the hiring hall a little before 7:30 a.m., hoping this will be the day his drought ends. He walks in and mingles with the 45 guys standing around sipping coffee, awaiting the day’s assignment. At 7:30 a.m. on the dot, the hiring boss strolls out of his office with list in hand. John sits, anxiously listening for his name to be called. The boss rattles off 10 names, 20 names, 30 names. He still has not heard his name. Doubt begins to fill his mind. The boss calls off the last five names and John’s was not one of them. The crowd disperses, en route to their day’s assignments.
John doesn’t want to leave without working. His drought has caused him to fall behind on bills, and he needs to find a way to get some work for the day. Instead of heading home like the other unfortunate workers who were not picked, he sits patiently outside the hiring boss’s office, who after a while notices John sitting outside and comes out…with an assignment card reading “Hold” (or holdsman). John’s persistence has earned him a spot in the day’s gang.
John walks out of the hiring hall with more pep in his step than he’s had in weeks. His goal that day is to work so hard that his bosses take notice and remember him the next day, but he knows it will prove to be another taxing, dangerous day for him. He heads out to the docks where he stares down a behemoth of a ship carrying fourteen tons of cargo. He quickly makes his way to the top of the ship where he sees a hatch with a ladder that leads to the interior of the ship. He carefully climbs in, and when he gets to the bottom of the ship, he is met with enormous rolls of raw steel.
As a holdsman, John’s job is to be inside the ship to direct the crane hooks into place and safely attach the hooks to the steel coils to be lifted out of the boat. The crane operators in the Port of Cleveland are unable to see in the ship from their seat in the crane, so they rely on their crew to safely guide hooks into place and then pull the cargo out of the ship. According to John, the rules for working on the ship are, “Keep your head up, get out of the way, and keep your head up.” One wrong move could result in, as John put it, “Them scraping you off the ship’s floor with shovels.”
Once inside the ship, John’s work begins. The crane drops the hooks in through the holding bay and he and the other holdsman work to secure the hooks to the 50,000-pound steel coils. Throughout the day, it is a regular occurrence for the holdsman to be standing 80 feet up above the hold floor, banging the hooks into place. This job is not for those with a fear of heights. With the joy of a young boy climbing his favorite 50-foot oak tree in his backyard, John scoffs at the dangerous height of the stacked cargo: “I like to work. I like running around on the steel. I’m pretty fearless in the hatch.”
After hours of work, and one union coffee break later, the clock strikes 11:30 a.m. It’s lunchtime. The gang leaves their designated posts and head to the Harbor Inn on the West Bank of the Flats. There they take their much-needed rest and cram their faces with some of Cleveland’s favorite dive bar food. Every lunch break is the same for them: they always go to the Harbor Inn and they always go together. John speaks highly of the guys at the ILA 1317: “It’s like a brotherhood. It’s a tight-knit group of guys.” In fact, when asked what the pros of his job as a longshoreman are, one of his answers is “the guys.”
The guys that make up the ILA 1317 mainly consist of blue collar Irish and Italian men in their mid-20s to late-60s, who like John, typically come from a long line of maritime laborers. There is almost a fraternity feeling to the group. The positions of power are usually transferred down the family lineage. For example, the president emeritus, John Baker, is the brother of the previous president, the late Chauncey Baker. The president and head trustee positions are held down by John Baker’s two sons. The only way into the union is to work as a day laborer for years and prove yourself to be an asset to the union chapter, and this is exactly what John is working so hard for. In the union, the pay is great and the benefits are unrivaled. With the union in the Port of Cleveland, the workers are protected and make wages that align with the high level of danger associated with their work.
After lunch, the guys head back out to the Port with full stomachs and a refreshed sense of energy. An hour and a half inside of a cool bar, after hours of work in the humid heat of a Cuyahoga summer day, will do that to you. As much as the guys would love to be done for the day, there is still much work to do. They get back to work unloading and moving the ship’s cargo. As the day wears on, the ship’s holds become increasingly empty. The guys work until the job is done, so some days the crew will get an extra few hours overtime, yielding additional cash for them and their families.
The work day draws to a close and the gang unloads the last of the cargo. They gather their belongings and most of them then go in the same direction: a Flats favorite for over 40 years, Carney’s Top o’ the Flats Bar. With another day in the books, John hopes someone has taken notice of his work ethic so he will be hired again tomorrow.
John and the rest of the longshoreman, who repeat this routine every day, are the backbone of the economic gateway to the city. In 2015, billions of dollars in goods were brought through the Port of Cleveland, which boasts a $3.5 billion annual economic value for the city of Cleveland. It’s safe to say that our city rides on the shoulders of this hard-working, tight-knit group of guys who walk with their heads held high because they, like so many other Clevelanders, are proud of who they are, what they do, and the city where they do it.