Centennial Moment #7: Moving Cargo with Jerry Johnston

Jerry Johnston

This centennial moment was originally presented to the port’s Board of Commissioners on August 28, 2012, by Jerry Johnston, retired ILWU Local 4 President who spent 40 years working on the port’s docks. Thank you Jerry!

The list of cargoes that have moved through the Port of Vancouver over the past 100 years is long and varied. Natural resources started the story, with prunes from Clark County orchards and lumber processed in mills along the Columbia River leading the pack.

Wheat from farms east of the Cascades began filling ship holds in the ‘30s and is now the port’s primary export by weight. Imports have always been diverse; Subaru chose the Port of Vancouver as the automaker’s official U.S. West Coast port of entry in 1992, and more recently, the port has become known for wind energy, handling more than 106,182 metric tons of wind turbine components in 2011.

Through the years, port cargoes have included commodities such as steel, wood pulp, petroleum products, bulk minerals, and fertilizer—not to mention other interesting items such as golf carts, cattle, tractors, wine, coffee beans, and even dried blood.

But one thing that has remained constant through it all is the solid presence of the dedicated men and women who work on the Port of Vancouver docks.

Vessels calling at the port have grown in both size and number, and the methods of moving cargo have evolved to rely less on brawny shoulders and more on the skilled handling of specialized equipment. The history of those who move cargo at the Port of Vancouver is as remarkable as its ever-changing cargo manifests—and it is intricately entwined with the port’s growth over the past century.

In the days of old clipper ships, sailings were frequently unscheduled and labor was often recruited at the last minute by shoreside criers calling, “Men along the shore!”—giving rise to the term “longshoreman.”

Dock workers organized early on, with the first West Coast longshore associations forming in the late 19th century. However, the work was arduous, job security tenuous, and longshoremen often found themselves at odds with their employers.

In 1934, locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) asked for a coast-wide contract with union hiring. An agreement was reached, and on July 31st, 1934, four gangs of longshoremen, 52 men in all, started work at the Port of Vancouver docks unloading railroad ties from the Elmworth.

The men were paid 85 cents an hour for an eight-hour day, with $1.25 for overtime. These increased wages meant larger pay envelopes and equal distribution of hours through a hiring hall of the workers’ control, as well as bringing equality in compensation.

In 1937, another agreement was reached between the ILA and ship owners, and what would become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) along the West Coast was founded to help ensure fair treatment of dock workers. By 1956, the Port of Vancouver had a payroll of 35, and regularly hired 175-200 longshoremen from the local hiring hall, ILWU Local 4, for work on the docks.

During this same decade, the port purchased its first harbor crane, which was capable of lifting loads of up to 50 tons—significantly increasing the port’s capabilities. Called a “whirley” crane because it was able to rotate a full 360 degrees, the rail-mounted crane was operated by longshoremen and used to load and unload large, unwieldy cargo. Thanks to the Port of Vancouver’s whirley crane and its operators, such cargoes as modular homes and logs found their way to Alaska.

However, historic tales of loading cargo for world-wide destinations are not just impressive. A few are downright comical. One such example is a shipment of cattle in the mid-1980s. Responding to demands in Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan for milk-producing livestock, the Port of Vancouver facilitated the export of cattle—many of them pregnant. Former port executive director Byron Hanke remembers longshoremen arriving for work in cowboy boots and chaps as they herded cattle onto ships for a two-week sea voyage. Hanke’s story also includes a lively chase of one escaped bovine over acres of port property.

Today, the port’s reputation as a major national and international shipping hub still relies on the collaboration of dedicated workers—both on the docks and throughout the port system. Port staff has surpassed the 100 mark and Local 4’s membership is the third largest on the Columbia River. The Port of Vancouver is also the third largest public port in Washington State.

The “whirley” crane has been replaced by two of North America’s largest mobile harbor cranes, each capable of handling loads topping 140 metric tons—210 metric tons when combined. Our leadership in safe, efficient handling of oversized and break bulk loads is unsurpassed.

Whether it’s Subarus from Japan and wood pulp from Brazil, or Northern Star trucks bound for Australia and scrap steel en route to China, the Port of Vancouver USA has become one of the leading ports on the West Coast. Building on a rich one-hundred year history, today’s port showcases a diverse cargo mix, specialized skills, state-of-the-art equipment, land for staging and storage – and a shared commitment to our status as a global trade center.

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