The Electrical Worker online
September 2013

IBEW and Building Trades Flourish at
California Ports
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Located side by side in San Pedro Bay, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach together comprise the sixth-busiest port complex in the world.

Even while they vie for business, the sister ports have jointly welcomed a never-fading wave of ships stacked with containers from Asia to fill America's craving for consumer goods. But when it came to relationships with building trades unions, their hospitality was always divided.

L.A. was union-friendly. When port commissioners there looked to upgrade or expand the port's infrastructure, they called upon union building and construction trades.

Long Beach was off limits for union contractors. Vehemently nonunion outfits like Helix Electric held sway with that facility's commissioners and the city's mayor and city council at the port.

Today, a decade of grassroots work by Los Angeles Local 11 and other unions to build political influence and support in Long Beach to successfully promote the skills and social responsibility of organized labor are finally being rewarded. The port, which moves $155 billion in goods and supports about $15 billion a year in trade-related wages, is teeming with members of the building trades, including IBEW members.

"I think both ports now understand that union contractors give customers a well-developed product, a great deal of experience and a commitment to see that the owner has great success with the design and intent of their projects," says Mike Gasper, an area superintendent at Dynalectric and 34-year IBEW member.

The current phase of the Middle Harbor project, part of a 10-year, $4 billion investment at the Port of Long Beach, includes a two-year project labor agreement that will employ 60 electricians at its peak. The project is designed to help Long Beach vastly increase productivity and decrease environmental damage.

"This is a monster job. Everything is robotic," says Craig Shaw, a 13-year IBEW member and a foreman for Dynalectric, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Long Beach.

New 12-kilovolt robotic cranes will replace existing ones that operate on 5 kilovolts. Cranes and robotic vehicles will reduce the amount of time to unload and reload a container ship from four days to one. To maximize utilization of Long Beach's 800 acres, union electrical contractors are helping to build a five-story warehouse that will accommodate rows of cargo containers stacked vertically.

"The building trades are looking at a 10-year span of work at Long Beach that will total 10-15,000 construction jobs," says Tommy Faavae, a Local 11 organizer who represents electricians at the ports and has spoken up at public hearings in support of project labor agreements.

Upgrades will allow the facility to accommodate larger ships once the Panama Canal widening project is complete in 2014. Improvements will also lower greenhouse gas emissions from Long Beach, which — together with its Los Angeles counterpart — constitutes the single largest source of pollution in the Los Angeles area.

To that end, Dynalectric is installing a main terminal substation and a ship-to-shore substation. Ship-to-shore power systems allow vessel crews to turn off their auxiliary diesel engines while at berth and draw maintenance power for the vessels from the landside power grid, thereby cutting a large percentage of the diesel emissions generated during each call.

"I think the complexity of the work required creating jobs for union contractors who had demonstrated their expertise [at the Port of Los Angeles] and the effectiveness of project labor agreements," says Gasper.

Complicating work for union contractors is the port's need to identify existing underground utilities as electrical crews install 260,000 feet of underground concrete-encased conduit in pre-cast pull boxes, vaults, manholes and a tunnel vault. The older utility lines were buried in the 1920s after oil was discovered in Long Beach, at one time the fourth-largest oil field in the U.S.

"We have invested a lot of resources to ensure that these jobs are quality middle-class jobs for our members who live and work near the port. Today, you can see that investment paying off," says Local 11 Business Manager Marvin Kropke.

New respect for the building trades in Long Beach is matched by increased esteem for other labor organizations, including UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union. In 2012, that union and a coalition of local progressives won a grassroots campaign to enact a ballot measure providing a living wage of at least $13 an hour and five paid sick days a year for 2,000 workers in the city's tourism industry.

The Long Beach project will dovetail with a project labor agreement at the Port of Los Angeles that extends through 2015, part of a $2.5 billion upgrade. Already, electricians have connected nine to 10 ship berths with shore power and are working on improving five terminals to reduce their carbon footprint.

None of the work at Long Beach, says Faavae, would be possible without members of Local 11 and other building trades unions getting politically active in the city and helping to elect a mayor, Bob Foster, a former president of Southern California Edison. Foster, who had maintained a productive collective bargaining relationship with IBEW locals in the state at SCE, was elected in 2010 with the support of 84 percent of voters.

In 2011, the mayor appointed Rich Dines, a 15-year member and former regional leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union — representing workers at both ports — to a six-year term as a port commissioner. The appointment was approved by the city council.

"I'm proud to have supported the first project labor agreement at Long Beach Harbor," says Dines. "High-value port construction projects are now awarded to responsible bidders. This replaces the former bid process of low-bid, responsive bidders," he says. That means proving that project labor agreements save money and provide good jobs for local workers, including youth, veterans and economically-disadvantaged citizens.

Looking to expand partnerships between the port, local elected officials and shipping companies, Dines says, "The ports have a social responsibility to provide great jobs for our surrounding communities. I want the Port of Long Beach to be an economic engine that can provide opportunity and create good-paying careers for our local residents."

While some ILWU jobs will be reduced as a result of automation, Dines says longshoremen will have jurisdiction over all jobs associated with new technologies.

Rafael Rosales is one of the thousands who has already benefited from an expanded union presence in Long Beach. Six years ago, Rosales, who was working in the nonunion sector on low-voltage electrical installations, found an advertisement for Local 11 on the Internet. He applied to the local's apprenticeship program. Six months ago, Rosales topped out as a journeyman, having spent three years working at the ports.

"My quality of life has totally improved as an IBEW member," says Rosales. And working at the ports, he says, has provided the opportunity to widen his skills on switchgears, underground installations and handling rigid pipe. "This project is good for the environment and it's good for apprentices [to pick up new skills]," says Rosales.


Skill and social responsibility are finally being rewarded as the IBEW and the Building and Construction Trades revamp the Port of Long Beach, part of the sixth-busiest port complex in the world.

Flickr photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user msun523.


Union electricians once only worked at the Port of L.A.


Community engagement opened opportunities for Local 11 electricians in Long Beach.


Crews installed 260,000 feet of conduit in pre-cast pull boxes, vaults, manholes and a tunnel vault.