APRIL 26, 1956: A crane in Newark, New Jersey, loads 58 aluminum shipping containers onto an aging WWII cargo ship named the Ideal X. Five days later, the vessel arrives in Houston, Texas, where another crane loads the 33-foot boxes onto trucks. The age of containerization begins.

That’s the way people usually tell the story, and they’re not entirely wrong. It was a big day for businessman Malcolm McLean, owner of the Ideal X, and the empire he would grow. But earlier versions of the shipping container had been crossing Seattle docks for a few years.

Seattle loves the Mariners, but our container ship trade goes mostly unnoticed

In 1949, a 35-year-old engineer in Spokane designed a 30-foot aluminum box for barges chugging to Alaska. The company he worked for sold only 200, but by 1953, the Alaska Steamship Company was regularly moving its freight in boxes (some wood, some steel) between The Evergreen State and The Last Frontier.

This week’s magazine story is about container ships and the largely unseen workforce aboard them, but there’s another group of laborers behind those port fences who are critical to the operation: longshore workers. Before containerization, the cargo they loaded and unloaded was called “breakbulk”: individual sacks of flour and coffee, pallets of apples, beams of steel.

When longshoreman Herald Ugles started working the Seattle docks in 1980, he reckons roughly half the cargo loaded was in containers, and the other half was breakbulk. “We had apples; Fisher’s Flour Mill on Harbor Island, all bulgur and flour sacks; banana ships; steel ships,” he says. “I threw a lot of apples, and for a lot of years I couldn’t eat apples.”

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Now Ugles is president of his union local (the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or ILWU, Local 19), and the work is usually more like 90% containers and 10% other stuff. In 1960, Seattle’s Port Commission saw the containerized future and announced a $32 million facilities upgrade, including two container terminals. “They went after the container business hard,” Ugles says. “That’s probably why we’re as big as we are for containers.”

These days, Seattle longshore workers also get seasonal work from cruise ships. They load and unload passengers’ luggage and all the shipboard supplies: food, booze, flowers, linens, furniture, props for the shows, everything. “When it’s cruise season, that’s around 25-30% of our work,” Ugles says, and it’s when “casuals” (part-timers) can rack up hours to qualify for joining the full-time longshore labor pools.

The next technological leap could be automation: AI handling cargo and cranes instead of workers. But Ugles doesn’t seem too concerned. “There’s always rumblings about automation,” he says. “But that requires a lot of land — which we don’t have — and a lot of capital expenditures.”

Those giant, automated ports in Denmark and Saudi Arabia, he says, tend to load and unload entire ships — around here, the work is often more specialized, taking 25% or 40% of the containers off the ship while keeping it balanced. Human workers, he says, can stack containers higher than the current AI equipment and problem-solve — making better, faster use of limited space, getting the containers out of the terminal and toward their destinations.

“Automation works in bigger ports with lots of space, but the turnover or velocity of containers per acre is not as great,” he says. “It’s all about terminal velocity.”