Paula Snelgrove was ending one job and looking to spend more time with her longshoreman husband when she started as a casual on the St. John’s waterfront several years ago and now she and Michelle Follett are making history for the union.
The Longshoremen’s Protective Union (International Longshoremen’s Association) Local 1953 is set to welcome its first two women members in the organization’s 115-year history Wednesday night.
“My husband, he worked here all his life,” said Snelgrove, who lives in St. John’s.
“It was hard to get time off together so if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Her husband, Frank, has since retired.
For union local president Chris Gosse, issuing cards to the first two women is a change he hopes will inspire a more diverse workforce.
“It’s about time,” said Chris Gosse Tuesday.
Snelgrove started out as a casual worker — driving new cars off the boats to the yard off Water Street West where they are stored. She and Follett both passed physical tests to progress to temporary card status and now they’ve passed a three-times harder physical test to become full card-carrying members of the union.
Snelgrove likes the work, which she said includes Oceanex and Harvey’s offshore oil base.
“I like the fact I’m outside. It’s easier to work in the cold than the heat,” she said.
There were other women who worked on the waterfront before, but none made it to full union card status.
Snelgrove said most of the men have been welcoming, but she’s noticed little changes over time.
Men have a way of talking a certain way among themselves, but their tone has changed with women in their midst to become more respectful, she said.
“Most of them are open-minded and accepting,” she said.
Some have also changed their opinion of seeing women as being weaker physically when they’ve seen Snelgrove and Follett doing the work just as ably as them.
Some of it involves handling 50-pound, 16-foot bars to lash down stacks of containers to the ship decks.
As people retire or go on to other jobs, the temporary card workers can go for a full union card, providing they pass that level’s test.
Gosse explained there are five seniority levels with the three being union card jobs. The pay level ranges from $16 an hour for casual to $35 for full card carrying.
He said most members are all for the diversifying of the union membership.
“Some people are still stuck in the 1940s and ’50s. Unfortunately, you can’t help those people and that’s too bad,” he said.
The local once had 3,500 members in St. John’s but is now down to 150.
Decades ago, the work was more labour intensive and time consuming until container cargo started to come into the sector in the 1950s, becoming more predominant in mid ’60s and early ’70s.
It was a major change from the labour of using pick and shovel to unload coal or taking cargo off by hand.
But there are still physical aspects to the job, such as lashing containers down and chaining roll-on, roll-off trailers to the deck of boats.
The labour is also more skilled now with heavy mechanics and other trades, such as crane operators.
“We’re hoping Michelle and Paula will be role models for other women interested in working at the local level, he said.
“After 115 years, I am proud as the local president that we have moved forward in this step. It’s a sign of progression.”
Follett, who lives in Goulds and Snelgrove of St. John’s will be acknowledged as new members during the LSPU (I.L.A.) Local 1953 Women’s Recognition Night Wednesday at the Benevolent Irish Society building in St. John’s.
Prominent women from the labour, business, and non-profit sectors will speak at the event.