By Barney Blakeney
Several weeks ago during a conversation with an old friend I was told for the past 18 years she has worked as a longshorewoman with Local 1422 International Longshoremen Association Union. She is among a dozen or so women who work alongside their male counterparts in one of the most male-dominated occupations in our community. As we launch into Women’s History Month, here’s a story about the women of the ILA-Local 1422.
I talked with Local 1422 Foreman Leonard Riley, who shared some history of women on the docks of Charleston’s port. Here’s some of what he said: “The work of longshoremen historically has been dominated by men. In particular, these men were both massive and muscular. Rolling bails, throwing bags and pulling chains were just a few of the labor intensive job assignments this group of workers was required to perform in the course of a work day. In addition to the physical attributes required to do the work, one needed to have the stamina to work long hours. It was not uncommon that groups called ‘Gangs’, worked 14-24 hours or more to complete work on a ship.
Women’s journey on the docks in the port of Charleston as longshorewomen had its beginnings in the person of Mrs. Isabelle G. Liggins. Mrs. Liggins, fondly remembered as “Pinkey”, was the daughter of Mr. George German, founder and first president of ILA Local 1422. Mr. German served as president about four decades. It was during the latter part of his years of service as president Mrs. Liggins, while using her formal education to assist the union, became more familiar with the longshore operation. Several things became more obvious to Pinkey about this line of work; 1) the pay and benefits were great and 2) shipping trends were changing due to automation and the creation of less labor intensive jobs.
With these revelations in mind, in the early to mid 1980s, Pinkey began to transition from clerical work in the office to the physical work on the docks. Though she’s documented as having worked on the docks as early as 1960, in the 1980s Mrs. Liggins went to work on the docks regularly. She successfully sought and won election to the office of Secretary-Treasurer, becoming the first woman officer in the local union’s history. She later achieved yet another first and became the first female water boy/person. She retired in 1997. Mrs. Liggins truly was a trailblazer for longshorewomen.
Several ladies I consider trendsetters and mentors to the most recent influx of female longshoremen. Kim Washington started in 1984 and through hard work and dedication she became the first female foreman. Bertha Edmonds started in 1987 and worked as a committed longshorewoman until she retired in 2014. Maryann Staggers started in 1994 and mastered most of the jobs normally reserved for men. She retired in 2008. Jannie Mikle, Georgette Carr, Jazzy Clay King and Yvette Flowers added to the number of female workers. Ms. Flowers went on to become the second female elected an officer in the local union. She retains the office of secretary-treasurer today.
In the spring of 2014 during the intake process 37 female applicants were given work cards to become longshoremen. This represents the “we are here” group and they are poised brake more records in the future.”
Antoinette Allen recently received her work card. She shared some thoughts. An employee at a local manufacturing plant for over 30 years, Allen started working regularly as a longshorewoman about 18 months ago. Longshoremen earn a base salary of $32 per hour. Allen says the income enables her to envision becoming a homeowner.
The flexible work hours are ideal for single parents and family caregivers, she said. As far as the physical requirements of the work, there are so many varied skills needed, “You can stay in your lane,” she said. And she’s getting valuable truck and forklift driving training.
Asked how long she intends to work Charleston docks, Allen exclaimed, “Man, I ain’t going nowhere! Those people will have to run me outta here!”