Above Photo: P&B Intermodal mechanic Levi Kamel talks to a driver from the picket line at the Port of Tacoma. Zack Pattin.
Like many of his co-workers, Levi Kamel was nearly ready to quit. But before he did, he decided to try one thing: win a union.
Kamel was making $18 an hour doing backbreaking work repairing container chassis—the trailers that attach to containers so they can be pulled down the road by semi-trucks—at the Port of Tacoma in Washington. He was a mechanic at P&B Intermodal, a logistics maintenance company that operates at intermodal yards across the country.
The job was a revolving door. In February 2021, Kamel had been there more than a year, but most workers lasted less than three months. And no wonder: “We didn’t have very good health care,” Kamel said. “We were treated really badly.”
When he started there were 14 mechanics; within a few months the number had dwindled to seven.
Kamel is a fourth-generation longshoreman; his father, his brother, two uncles, and several cousins all belong to the Longshore Union (ILWU).
His family put him in touch with an ILWU organizer, who helped him begin to strategize how he could bring a union to his yard.
Marched With Demands
Kamel and his co-workers got together to draft a list of demands. One of these co-workers was Thierry Williams, who was also ready to quit after two years at the yard.
Williams had suffered an injury at work that landed him in months of physical therapy—yet P&B Intermodal continued to pressure him to physically strain himself on the job.
But after he heard about what a union could bring—higher pay, good health care, and better working hours—Williams decided to stay and organize.
Wearing ILWU-branded face masks, the workers marched on the boss and presented their demands. One was to rehire a worker they believed had been wrongfully fired for prioritizing safety over fast production.
As the workers spoke, a manager asked Kamel where he got his mask.
This single question triggered a dramatic chain of events. After work Kamel told the union organizer what the manager had asked him—and learned that this interrogation was an unfair labor practice.
A $6 Million Day
The next morning they went on strike. Workers came into the intermodal yard and started a day-long picket.
The Port of Tacoma is a logistics hotspot, where trucks, marine cargo carriers, and the Union Pacific Railroad meet to move goods across the nation.
ILWU hostler drivers, who drive the chassis into the yard for repairs, were protected by their contract from having to cross the picket line.
“The hostler drivers didn’t cross that line, and that train didn’t get loaded for that entire day,” Kamel said. “We were on that picket until 7 or 8 p.m., because we were waiting for them to send the hostler drivers home. If the Union Pacific doesn’t get loaded, that’s $5 to $6 million that they lost.”
P&B Intermodal was simultaneously pleading for strikers to return to work and calling the police on them. The strike gave the workers the leverage they needed to win. The next day, Kamel said, “the company was begging.”
When P&B realized that the workers were ready to go back on strike if their demands weren’t met, the company officially recognized their union.
What did the strikers win? In the words of Williams: “Everything.”
They negotiated a brand new contract, which took effect July 1, 2021. Wages doubled from $18.50 to $37.50. So instead of making $40,000 a year, a full-time worker would now make $80,000.
They went from having no pension to a pension where the company contributes $9.50 an hour (plus an employer-matched 401k). An expensive five-tier health insurance plan was replaced by free, fully covered health care and dental.
“We didn’t even have breaks before,” Williams said. After organizing the union, “we got two 15-minute breaks, an hour lunch, overtime over eight hours, overtime on the weekends, and 10-hour-stop days, no matter what.”
In short, Williams said, “we turned a dead-end job into a career.”
This win has inspired other P&B Intermodal workers to unionize. After a five-hour picket, 10 mechanics at an intermodal yard in Seattle won a union on June 10; now they’re in contract negotiations.