May 18, 2004
A Long Struggle for Equality: The Mexican American longshoremen of Local 13, 1933-1975
Edited by Harvey Schwartz
This month’s oral history features the recollections of Henry Gaitan, Elmer Gutierrez, Ruben Hernandez Negrete, Ray Salcido, Sr. and Joe Uranga, five veteran Mexican American longshoremen from Local 13. Their stories provide us with another guide to the early history of the ILWU.
Workers of Mexican heritage have been in the L.A./ Long Beach Harbor area for generations. They were among the founding members of the old International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local set up in 1933 that pre-dated the ILWU. During the 1934 strike they served as some of the union’s most militant pickets. Yet even after the strike, opportunities for most of them were limited for some time.
Initially the waterfront remained bound by certain pre-strike traditions. For the most part, Mexican Americans only labored in non-ILWU lumberyards a little inland or worked off the ILWU’s longshore lumber list. They also worked some casual jobs that were typically the roughest around.
A few Mexican Americans were in steady general cargo gangs during the 1930s, but not many. And no such gang was Mexican American-led before World War II. Then everything changed. A serious wartime labor shortage dramatically increased the percentage of Mexican-American longshoremen in Local 13.
It took a while, but after the war the better jobs and the opportunities to be local committeemen, dispatchers, and officers came along. Mike Salcido was elected Local 13 Secretary, Rudy Rubio and Art Almeida served the local as presidents, and Rubio became an International Vice-President. By the mid-1970s, if not even earlier, Local 13’s Mexican Americans had achieved the full participation they had always merited.
The interviews excerpted here were conducted in 1983-84 by Daniel Beagle, then editor of The Dispatcher, UC professor David Wellman and Harvey Schwartz. They were part of the ILWU Oral History Project funded in the 1980s by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Special thanks to Art Almeida for his help with this month’s article.
I was born in 1910 in Clifton, Arizona. My father worked in a smelter there. He’d been a labor leader in Mexico. My mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Then my father and I left Clifton and came to live in San Pedro. He got a job at the Los Angeles Ship Yard, which is Todd Ship now. He became a longshoreman in the 1920s.
It was rough living with my dad alone. He used to buy me tickets to eat at the San Pedro Cafe. I’d get all my kid friends and we’d go through the tickets in two days, one day. Finally my dad said, “That’s it. You gotta live on bread, pork and beans, and water. Go hustle your own meal.”
Before the ’34 strike they had the employers’ “fink hall” with the shape-up hiring system. There was a ramp, like a cow ramp, that ran from one end of the hall to the other. We’d go around there for extra work about 1928, 1930. The dispatchers would stand on top of this ramp, especially on “white boat” days. There were two white Matson Navigation Co. ships, the Yale and the Harvard. You’d work about two to three hours at racehorse speed to unload.
Bob was the guy that used to come in to dispatch workers to the white boats. He’d have a stack of cards about so high. All the guys that worked over there steady used to anticipate where the cargo went. They were already there. But all the extra men he picked out of the fink hall. He’d come in and give you a card, give you a card, and give another card. Guys would cry, “Gee Bob, hey Bob, gimme a card!” You wanted his attention, the son of a bitch. Finally he’d get tired, and he’d take these cards and throw ’em out everywhere. Then, if you didn’t get a card, you’d get the streetcar to pier 175 to see if you could pick work up there.
We used to call working the white boats “the race track.” You’d come up there, you’d go to the hold. The guy was watching you, saying, “Come on, let’s go, come on, let’s go.” You ran yourself wild. You tried to impress the bosses and Bob, so they’d think, “Hey, that guy’s a good worker, he don’t stop, he keeps on goin’.” If Bob or one of the guys we called “pushers” on the white boat dock wanted you back, you didn’t have to go down to the fink hall the next day. He’d give you a card to come back.
Back then all the old-time longshoremen were Anglos–Swedes, Germans, Norwegians and Italians. You had Italian gangs, Swedish gangs, Portuguese gangs and things like that. They didn’t have any Mexican gangs. The few Mexicans that worked were mostly on the fink hall’s lumber list, like my father. It was a job that never stopped. They never loaded lumber here, but they took it out. They were always moving. It was a different kind of a job.
Lumber handling was just something the Mexicans got into. They had more Mexicans working lumber than on freight because freight jobs were a little more clannish with their Swedish and Norwegian gangs that worked steady for the stevedoring companies. If a steady gang needed somebody extra, or casual, you got him out of the fink hall. There were a few Mexicans that worked in steady gangs, but there was no Mexican gangs until after they organized. I had one of the first Mexican gangs–it was given to me around 1941, during the war, when we got all the influx of work.
In the pre-union years the Mexicans also used to work as ship scalers, scraping off the barnacles underneath raised up boats and painting the outside. We used to stand in line for that, too. The boss would pick you out. It was mostly Mexicans. We used to make 50 cents an hour.
For one scaling job they had what they called a boiler gang. You’d go inside the hot boiler and clean all of the soot out of it. You’d go into the fireboxes. You’d wrap yourself up in a couple of suits of pants, wrap up real good, and go inside and scrape. You didn’t last too long. You talk about lung asbestos now, well that was worse. All those Mexicans did it. They had to get a job. Guys would last maybe five or six years doin’ that. They’re all dead now. You don’t see any of those guys around anymore. Later we organized the scalers. I was a member and became a president and was quite active.
During the ’34 strike the organization was quiet. What was going on wasn’t publicized. We were the troops, the buck privates. We did the dirty work. They’d say, “We need somebody at a certain place.” Well, okay, there we were, ten or 15 of us–me, a lot of Mexican kids and Anglos too.
The struggle in ’34 was something worth fighting for. I remembered the conditions of my dad. He didn’t say much, but you could see them by going down to the fink hall and standing around. What made me so loyal? Love for the people, for the organization, and my background of being poor, never having anything, and then going back to work and making some money and working with guys. After the strike, three of us bought brand new cars in 1937. Hey, this was it, man. This was just like throwing open new avenues and living.
RAY SALCIDO, SR.
I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1899. I worked pick and shovel when I was young. My brother and I worked for American Smelting Company in Arizona and laid railroad track for Union Pacific in Nevada. After World War I we came to San Pedro to stay with my uncle, Chu Chu Salcido, who raised us. Chu Chu was in the Longshore Union later.
In Arizona I’d been in a miners strike when I was about 15. Quite a few of us strikers went to jail. We was doing everything we can to stop the strike breakers, like throwing rocks. I was in jail for 30 days.
In the 1920s I worked for Patton Blinn Lumber Company on the waterfront, where Chu Chu was working. He helped me get the job. The workers were mostly Mexicans. You had to work hard there to keep up the pace. We separated and stacked lumber that came from the ships. I worked in the lumberyard for about nine years.
By 1934 I’d left the lumberyard and was working on the waterfront unloading lumber from ships. During the ’34 strike we stopped the strikebreakers. They wanted to start working, so we got sticks. Then the police came. We couldn’t run fast enough because there was too many policemen. That’s when they got us in jail.
I was with Dick Parker when he was killed. Him and I was together around the tent where they had the strike breakers inside. He said, “Ray, I’m shot.” Then I picked him up and got him out of the tent.
After the strike they dispatched by hours. The ones that had the fewest hours went out to jobs first. There were dispatch boards for different categories after ’34, too–jitney drivers, lumber men, freight men, and shovel men that shoveled coke. I was on the lumber board, where most of the men were Mexicans.
My parents came from Mexico, but part of my people are from Italy. I was born here in the United States in Missouri in 1914. My father was working for the railroad at that time. I was taken to California when I was three and a half. I grew up in San Pedro speaking Spanish.
I started working in 1931 sewing sacks at Long Beach Dispatch Co. near the waterfront. I became a cooper. I could fix wooden barrels. I stayed at Long Beach Dispatch until 1934. But only very few times was there more work than a day and a half a week. So prior to the ’34 strike I also worked on the docks when they needed an extra hand. This would be about once a week.
I joined the ILA when it first started. When I wasn’t working on the waterfront I’d go to the fish market and give them a hand. Manuel Lopez was a fisherman there. He recruited me into the ILA. He was Spanish and belonged to a Spanish group in Wilmington, the one that organized the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in Spain. He was always talking about unions and work conditions, and he induced me into getting in the longshore union.
As a young Mexican then I was welcome into the union because I paid my dues and I was one of the first to get in. I was sworn in at the very first meeting of the ILA. It was at Victoria Theater. During the ’34 strike I was a picket and got arrested twice.
In the beginning of the union the Mexicans always got these jobs where the work was the hardest. The jobs they used to get the most were handling lumber and shoveling sulfur, ore and coke. I got a couple of jobs working coke. They used to bury you and then you had to work your way out. It would cover you. You would have to work to the escape hatch. At that time we didn’t have the union we have now. We went through a lot of hell.
In the ’30s being Mexican would make an effect. If they was gonna let somebody off early, it would be somebody else besides you. If it would be an easy job, somebody else would get it. If there was a jitney job open, they wouldn’t ask you, they would ask somebody else. About the only time they’d ask you was if they couldn’t get nobody else.
I wanted to get into a ship gang, but you had to be 21. When I got to be 21 in 1935 I went down to the ILA hall and worked in the hold. One day I caught Billy Walter’s gang. It was the number one gang from Metropolitan Co. Walter spoke German and I could understand a little bit of it. I’d worked up in San Pedro in a sort of a club with nothing but Germans. I got a few words. So when I went with him, he didn’t mind. The guys in the hold didn’t mind either, and I was the youngest one in the group, too. That’s how come I learned how to handle steel and heavy stuff.
When World War II started and Black workers came on the waterfront, White guys would say, “I don’t want to work with that n—–r.” When the Blacks started comin’ in, even the Mexicans had a tendency to feel the same way. I said, “Wait a minute, what’s the matter with you, damn fools, they’re takin’ the pressure off of our neck.” By the end of World War II, the White longshoremen who hadn’t liked Mexicans had changed their mind.
I felt the Blacks were okay if they were willing to work or if they’d work together. One time there was a Black guy and nobody wanted to work with him. I said, “I’ll work with him.” We had this wool coming from Australia. When I seen him load that wool, I knew he knew his business. So I listened to him. I come out of there at the end of the job and I wasn’t as tired as I would have been otherwise.
And I’ll tell you, some of those Blacks has been better union men than some of these people we already had. I always say, you gotta work with what you have. You gotta make the best. If you have a confrontation with people you got something in between you that later on will backfire on ya.
RUBEN HERNANDEZ NEGRETE
My grandfather came here from Mexico way before the turn of the century. On my mother’s side they were merchants in Mexico. I was born right here in Long Beach and was raised in Los Angeles County. My father did truck gardening on the other side of Maywood. The depression hit us in ’32 and made me go to work. My father lost everything. I was only 16 or 17 years old. In ’35 I moved to Wilmington and started in the lumberyards near the waterfront. I worked like a mule there from ’35 to ’41.
I came down to the waterfront during the Second World War in ’44. At that time they wanted anybody. Most of the guys–what you call the Anglos–who had been working as longshoremen took off for jobs at the shipyards or went to sea. Before my time, prior to ’41, I think there was 10 percent of the local that was Mexican. During the war, they were begging the Mexican people to come in. After the war Art Almeida looked into it. By 1960 there were 37 percent Mexican guys and 37 percent Anglos. The rest were Blacks. It was something like that.
So before the war there wasn’t many Mexicans, and you couldn’t get on the winches, you couldn’t go bossing and you couldn’t drive jitney. Me, I worked in the hold from ’44, when I come in, ’til about seven years, and on and off after that. Later I was a jitney driver. After ’51 more Mexicans got these better jobs. Before ’51 they had a few, but you could count ’em on your hand. Also after the war some Mexican guys got to be dispatchers and Mike Salcido became the first Mexican secretary of Local 13.
The first Mexican guy that was sponsored into the Marine Clerks Local was in ’52, ’53, something like that. Sponsoring was where they put you down as sponsoring a guy into the local. It was supposed to be for sons and brothers.
The 500 unemployed was a dirty trick. In ’46 we were gonna go on strike. They had too many guys. They said, “Well, we’ll lay off 500 of you guys so you can collect the unemployment, and you’ll be the first ones taken in after work starts again.” What they wanted to do was get rid of the guys, who were mostly Blacks. There was a few Whites and Mexicans, but mostly Blacks. They were low seniority guys. I was right on the edge of the 500 unemployed. A few guys after I come in, that’s when they stopped. There was a cutoff date. If you got your book before that, you could stay.
When the time came to bring men in, around ’47, ’48, they had a bright idea of bringing in some of the sons and brothers. That’s where the turmoil come in. Some guys who had never seen the waterfront got in because they were sons and brothers of longshoremen. And they–Bill Lawrence, L.B. Thomas, and some of the local’s politicians at that time–welshed on the deal with the 500. I was there when they told us, ’cause I thought I was gonna be one of the 500: “Work resumes, you’ll be the first ones to come back.” That’s when some of these 500 sued, which you couldn’t blame the guys. The politicians were monkeying around with a guy’s livelihood, depriving him of feeding his kids.
Later on, I got three sons into the union by sponsorship. Different people sponsored them. Many Local 13 people are related. I got a lot of relations here–cousins, nephews, and the three boys. Nepotism? Where isn’t there nepotism? The superintendents of these big oil companies get their kids in there. So, something like this, I don’t see what’s wrong about it. Here, it is like a family to a certain extent. All of us have lived in the Harbor Area all our lives. I was 15 years on the Sponsorship Committee. I was Chairman a few times. But eventually they didn’t have any more sponsorship.
My folks were from Mexico. I was born in Fullerton, California in 1917. I’ve lived in the Harbor area all my life. My dad worked in the lumberyards. He died in 1925 when I was eight years old. We didn’t know too much about having steaks every day. We were lucky to have a pair of shoes on.
I was in the first group of Mexicans that went into the longshore union early during the war, in 1942. They were desperate for help, but sponsorship was about the only way you could get in then. I had a charter member sponsor me. He worked in the lumber part of the longshore industry. He was a Mexican fellow named Marciano Lopez. By the end of the war maybe 25 percent of the Local 13 members were Mexicans.
RUBEN HERNANDEZ NEGRETE
I’ve had good feelings toward this union since I started. Even though we worked hard during the war, we knew we were doing something for the country. And the wages were good, better than the lumberyard, better than anything else. Another thing, after the war we were treated equal to anybody. Now, if it wasn’t for the ILWU, I think 99 percent of us wouldn’t have what we have. Anything I can do for the ILWU I’m willing to do.
Being in this union was a big education. I never had the opportunity of being in anything. All I do was mule train before–really work hard. After I joined here, a few years later I started getting active. The ILWU made life a lot easier and more interesting. You get to meet people from different places. Once they know you belong to the ILWU, they look up to it, all over the world. I was an ILWU Overseas Delegate to the Philippine Island in 1975. Harry was looked up to. The ILWU was looked up to. People knew it wasn’t a corrupt union, that it was a straight, working stiff union.