Mission Creek Banana Boats

"I was there..."

by Al Ohta, longshoreman


Unloading banana boat, San Francisco, c. 1940s.

Photo: ILWU Archives

From 1947 through 1959 there were too many longshoremen for the number of jobs available so the books were closed. Finally in 1959 a large group of us, between 600 and 800, were added to the books. There were “A” men and “B” men, and the B men got the Mission Creek banana boats because it was dirty, strenuous work.

Nypl unloading bananas from steamer.jpg

This image of bananas being unloaded is from New York, but the scene along San Francisco's Mission Creek would have been much the same.

Photo: New York Public Library

The green bananas were stowed in the hatches on their stalks. There were two groups of workers. One fed the banana stalks onto the conveyor belt that brought the fruit up out of the hatch. The dock group walked the bananas from the belt to the chilled refrigerator cars on the siding next to the China Basin Building. There was never much room between stalks so nobody wanted to work on the end of the conveyor belt where the bananas would fall off.


China Basin Building along Mission Creek, 1920s.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Every few hours we would shift cars and everybody looked forward to that break. It took nine hours to complete a ship. It only paid $2.85 an hour in 1959. You depended on extended hours, and overtime made us well-paid workers. We got time and a half after six, not eight hours.

United Fruit company building 1930s AAC-7539.jpg

United Fruit Company offices across Mission Creek from the China Basin Building, c.1930s.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

The banana boats were known to be more boisterous, with more drinking going on. There was a lot of good feeling and humor and a big crap game going on that really upset the wives so much the company put a stop to it. Many of the longshoremen worked partners. Some men had the same partner on jobs for years. If a man died he might leave his property to his work partner rather than his family. Speaking of dying, you had to die on the job to collect union benefits and there is a story of a longshoreman dying at Crabby John’s (Blanche’s today) and his buddies stowed him in a box car so his widow would collect.

The key to Bridges’ success was the honor system in the hiring hall. You get there early, about 6:30 a.m., and you have rotary hiring with the fellows with the least hours that month getting the first jobs. Start fresh every month. This system zeroed in on the problem of how to make the work fair. Bridges was a very creative guy. He got all for the men that he could out of the transition from bulk cargo to container ships.


Hiring hall, c. 1950s.

Photo: ILWU Archives


ILWU President Harry Bridges addresses Labor Day rally in San Francisco's Civic Center, September 1947.

Photo: ILWU Archives


Harry Bridges at a warehouse Local 6 meeting in 1947.

Photo: ILWU Archives


This story is excerpted from Chapter 15 of "Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco's Mission Bay" by Nancy Olmsted, published by the Mission Creek Conservancy.

Al Ohta interview with Nancy Olmsted, March 6,1986.

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