A few years back, the Los Angeles Local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union opened up the books to accept applications for 3,000 casual stevedore jobs. The positions paid well enough—about $28 per hour—but, as casual jobs, there were neither guarantees of regular work nor any benefits. Over 300,000 people applied. It was clearly a step up for a major percentage of the LA area’s physically fit, U.S. citizen/legal resident, drug-free blue collar workforce.
There was a time when someone with those qualifications (well, actually, you didn’t even have to be drug-free), could graduate high school or get discharged from the military on a Friday and start work in the steel mill on a Monday. If they didn’t like it there, they could hire into the auto plant on a Tuesday. There was a time when getting laid-off didn’t mean a near-permanent loss of income and career prospects. There was a time when going out on strike didn’t mean risking everything that you worked for.
I missed this heyday moment by a year or two. By the time I got my first full-time job in 1972, things were already beginning to turn to shit. Plant closings and permanent reductions in force were becoming part of the landscape and the country was about to be rocked by an oil crisis and a series of increasingly severe recessions. I was too late for the steel mill/auto plant thing but you could still fairly easily get a living wage job in a cookie factory or a warehouse and not worry too much about how you would survive if the plant closed or the boss fired you for being a smart ass. I traveled the country in the mid-70’s working a series of light construction and cannery jobs—many dispatched from union hiring halls or state employment agencies—that are being done today by undocumented immigrants at close to the same actual wage (not adjusted for inflation) that was prevalent back then.