NEW BEDFORD — The applause of some three dozen longshoremen echoed through the halls of a cramped gymnasium on a late June afternoon in New Bedford’s West End. The union, which has seen dwindling hours and declining membership for decades, had something to celebrate. For the first time in five years, they had new members to swear into their ranks. Four of them.
Standing at the helm was Kevin Rose, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1413 (ILA). In May, he led the 35-member union chapter through a week-long strike that stopped all work at the Port of New Bedford on unloading a massive ship carrying parts for the nation’s first large-scale wind farm.
“If we had folded, that would have been it for this union,” Rose said, speaking over the applause in a booming voice built over decades in competition with heavy machinery. The negotiation was tense, but civil, Rose explained. And by the end of it, the ILA had secured a contract with developer Vineyard Wind — guaranteeing a 40-hour work week, codifying ILA jurisdiction on the project and obtaining a $1 million grant from Vineyard Wind for job site training and certification.
Rose, with broad shoulders and darting eyes, has the bearing of a boxer, though at 60 years old, he sees himself these days more as a cornerman. Addressing the longshoremen, he weaved his way through his vision for rebuilding the union and its community. For him, the contract secured with Vineyard Wind wasn’t the final bell. It was the first round of a fight he has been training for all his life.
“With Vineyard Wind, we hit the biggest guy in the room,” Rose said. “Now, hopefully, all the others fall in line.”
Rose joined the ILA the way most longshoremen have entered its ranks. His father was a longshoreman. His grandfather was, too. The three generations trace the arc of the union’s history on the waterfront, from its strongest to its most fragile and hopefully, now, its revival.
He grew up in the Monte Park neighborhood, a predominantly Cape Verdean part of New Bedford. Throughout his childhood, Rose would follow his grandfather, Ben Rose, a canonized figure in New Bedford’s Cape Verdean community, to the waterfront. Then, dozens of longshoremen had steady employment, most unloading lumber ships from the ports in New Bedford and Providence, Rose said. The labor was hard, much of it hoisted by hand with the aid of hooks. But it was consistent enough to support dozens of families.
It was the way of the waterfront, then, that those who had family in the ILA were almost guaranteed a spot. The union remains predominantly Cape Verdean, and the community would take care of its own, Rose said. But in his late teens and early 20s, when Rose started looking to pick up work, bulk shipping had begun to outgrow the Port of New Bedford. Advancements in the industry meant the large cargo ships could no longer fit through the port’s hurricane barrier and were redirected to larger ports. The steady stream of ships tracing back to the whaling days had slowed to a trickle. Membership in the ILA started its long decline.
“Work dried up and it became competitive,” Rose said. It was so competitive, he said, that even his father refused to train him on the cranes and other equipment he had to learn in order to gain his spot in the union. He had to push his way in by picking up shifts when others didn’t show and by training on his lunch hours. “The thought was, if you trained somebody, they would take your job,” he said. “They didn’t want that.”
Rose remembers when he heard the first murmurs that a new industry would be settling on the New Bedford waterfront. It was the mid-2000s, and state and federal regulatory agencies were beginning to mull Cape Wind — the first offshore wind development planned off the coast of Massachusetts.
By then, Rose had steadily climbed the ranks, ascending from a part-time forklift driver to a crane operator and hatch boss, leading a crew of 15 longshoremen. But Rose remained frustrated by the leadership’s resignation to the union’s decline. The ILA was “surviving on the crumbs” left over from the major ports where the shipping industry had concentrated, he said. What was once steady work had dwindled to unloading a handful of ships carrying fruit juice concentrate, providing part-time pay for six months of the year.
“The older generation, we owe them a lot, but they were fine with the status quo,” he said. “They were more worried about securing their own spots than looking ahead to the future — to rebuilding. And that’s what we had to do.”
Offshore wind power has been hailed for its role in weaning the nation off fossil fuels and combating the threat of climate change. For Rose, the offshore wind industry represented a different opportunity. The industry would require hundreds of ships, each loaded with heavy components to build the wind farms, and it would require dozens of workers to unload that equipment.
Progress for the city of New Bedford, as Rose sees it, has a pattern of coming at the expense of the Cape Verdean community. In the 1960s, the development of Route 18 promised faster transportation through the city, but it hollowed out his neighborhood. The project tore down homes in bulk, leaving in their place the scar of a four-lane highway. In recent years, the slow creep of gentrification has lured new investment into the city. It has also displaced families that have lived there for generations.
Offshore wind was an opportunity for the ILA, Rose said, not just for its members to pick up extra shifts, but to serve as the foundation for rebuilding the union — and his community — through steady employment and livable wages.
“This time,” Rose said, “we’re not going to be left behind.”
Campaigning on the idea of rebuilding, Rose lost his first two elections running for union president, in 2010 and 2013. The longshoremen have a saying, Rose explained: “We’ll believe it when the lines are called.” When his father was operating cranes, the phrase meant they would believe a ship was due only once its lines were tethered to the port. And as the Cape Wind development failed to launch, staggering through a decade of lawsuits and public opposition to obstructed coastal views, the phrase came to affirm the union membership’s doubt that offshore wind would be the lifeline Rose had hoped it could be.
That changed in 2015, when the U.S. Department of the Interior began auctioning off parcels of federally managed ocean for offshore wind development. Vineyard Wind became among the first developers to obtain a parcel. Soon after, it announced it would set up its operation at the Port of New Bedford. Slowly, the industry was beginning to take shape, and with it Rose’s campaign as union president. He won his first election in 2016, and quickly got to work negotiating with developers to secure the work for his union.
But for Rose and the longshoremen, the biggest hurdle was yet to come.
This year, on May 25, a 492-foot barge hailing from Portugal chugged through the New Bedford hurricane barrier. It was the first ship delivering parts that will make up the towers for Vineyard Wind’s 837-foot-high wind turbines. After years of planning and false starts, it marked the physical arrival of the offshore wind industry at the city’s port.
Rose and 12 longshoremen were there among more than 300 workers, ranging from Boston construction unions to European engineers. But unlike the other groups, the ILA had not been able to secure a contract with Vineyard Wind, operating instead on a “handshake deal” Rose and the union’s leadership had struck with the developer. After the first two tower components were unloaded, Rose said it became clear that the developer was using other workers to fill their spots.
Rose led the union off the job site. With bills to pay, and the prospect of losing even the part-time work, it was a difficult decision, Rose said. Some members were reluctant. But this was the first ship of dozens more to come. The lines had been called, Rose said, and if they didn’t set a precedent with the first ship, they risked once again being left behind.
The ILA formed a picket line, blocking two entrances to the shipping yard. Its members held signs demanding a contract and calling out Vineyard Wind for not honoring its commitment to hiring a local and diverse workforce. In solidarity, members of the other unions working on the project turned off their machines, grinding all work on the site to a six-day halt.
Turbines the height of 70-story skyscrapers will soon tower over East Coast fishing grounds. But government regulators with ties to offshore wind developers are downplaying the danger to the marine ecosystem and fishermen’s livelihoods.
For the first of those six days, Rose’s blood pressure reached a point so high that he had to be hospitalized. He has long suffered from a heart condition, he said. He doesn’t blame it on the stress of the negotiation. “But my blood was boiling,” he added. With the fate of his union on the line, he returned to the picket line as soon as his doctor cleared him. Weeks later, he had surgery to insert a stent.
“If we’re going to keep up this fight, I’m going to need my health back,” he said.
Back at the gymnasium, where the ILA was swearing in four new members, including the first female in the union, Rose had much to reflect on. At 60 years old, he said he is not putting in this effort to secure his own job. In fact, he won’t be training on the massive cranes used to unload the offshore wind ships. But his son recently joined the union, and he’s hoping that his daughter will, too.
“We’re not trying to bring back the olden days,” Rose said. “This is about the next generation, and making this community stronger than it ever has been before.”
Email Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.