Though she’s afraid of heights and refuses to travel in an airplane, Lakos spends her workdays suspended in a cab 140feet in the air navigating the biggest cranes in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And while more than 500 gantry crane operators work in the port complex, barely two hands are needed to count the number of women who have risen to this senior position. “We’re finishing loading the ship today,” she said, sipping her oversize latte and waiting for the first truck to line up a cargo container beneath her crane. The 33-year-old mother of two is a fourth generation “longie,” but she represents the first group of women to reach the upper echelon of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union. No glass ceiling exists where Lakos works, only a glass floor. By Megan Bagdonas STAFF WRITER With the damp smell of marine water mixed with whiffs of heavy industry hanging in the the cool morning air, Jennifer Lakos grabs the first rung of a grease-speckled ladder. After climbing to a grated platform 40 feet high, she rides a steel-caged elevator to a windy deck, where she enters a crane cab that reeks of stale cigarette smoke. Buckling herself into a chair surrounded by an array of buttons and joysticks, she surveys the scene below. From her bird’s-eye view, objects take on simplified geometric shapes. The hard-hatted ground crew looks like fast-moving florescent circles, while trucks are reduced to perfect rectangles strung across parallel, striped lane lines. “I’ll follow your lead,” comes the crackling voice of the house boss over the cab’s radio and the day’s clangorous concerto of steel-on-steel begins. After graduating high school in Huntington Beach, Lakos worked at a Wet Seal clothing store and took classes at a community college, biding her time until she decided what she wanted to do with her life. So when her father, a marine clerk, told her about an opportunity to become a casual, a non-union, part-time dock worker, the sporty, outgoing girl thought, “Why not?” “When my dad brought home the application and said they were hiring women, I didn’t even know that women worked down here,” Lakos said. At 19, when she first started, Lakos worked long and odd hours doing grunt work reserved for rookies on the docks. It wasn’t easy. Lashing cargo containers and moving heavy equipment is grueling work, and being a young, attractive woman only made her job tougher. “I had to strive harder to fit in,” recalled Lakos about dock work in the early 1990s. “There were the guys who would give you favoritism because they wanted to flirt with you, and then you’d run into the mean ones or a particular guy who was hard on you ? because he didn’t want women down there at all. “Sometimes I’d go home and cry and say I’m never going back because it was so awful. But I dealt with it. It made me stronger, and it never deterred me. But now we’re more accepted.” The first woman joined the union in 1978. However, their numbers didn’t start to increase until a quota system was put in place in the early 1980s, requiring at least a quarter of casuals processed be women. Last year, nearly 2,200 – or 17 percent – of active ILWU Local 13 members at the twin ports were women, according to employment records. Mike Mitre, president of ILWU Local 13, said by standing her ground and proving herself in a traditionally male-dominated culture, Lakos has become a beacon for other women on the docks. “At first, for the older guys, the big rugged longshoreman-type, it took them a while to get over it, but not now,” Mitre said. “With the ever-increasing numbers of women in positions like crane operators, marine clerks, foremen and planners, they are proving they can be successful in all categories of the job.” At lunchtime, Lakos takes off to do some shopping, preferring to walk since she’s been hunched over crane controls for four hours. Meanwhile, over meatball sandwiches, Cokes and potato chips, some of her co-workers at the Pacific Container Terminal talk about working with Lakos, or as some like to call her, “Jay.” “Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she lets anybody walk on her,” said ship boss Chris Rice, 37. “She’s not afraid to put you in your place.” Swingman James Gravitte, 51, remembered when he finally got a look at the “new girl” crane operator, she defied his expectations. “When you’re working under the crane you don’t know who’s up there moving the cans,” Gravitte said. “They could be black, white, man, woman, whatever. But I kept hearing people mention Jen. When I finally saw her climb down from the crane she looked like a little school girl, and it kind of surprised me.” “She’s done 40 moves an hour, and I’ve been under the hook when she’s done it,” said hatch clerk and crane operator Richard Mantez, 40. “The way she moves that cargo – she’s smooth and totally in control. She gets a lot of respect.” Lakos said that her paycheck – about $400 for an eight-hour day – is representative not only of her seniority in the union, but also her responsibility for the safety of the ground crew. “I have a lot of lives in my hand,” she said. “One slip-up and somebody could easily be killed.” Since 2003, there have been three deaths and 22 people hospitalized as a result of crane accidents in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to California Occupational and Safety and Health Administration. After lunch Lakos gets back in the cab and finishes loading the ship. Maneuvering the spreader – the mechanism that picks up and drops off containers – she lowers it to lock onto a container resting in the bed of a truck. She then hoists the load while swiftly trollying the cab forward along the boom, swinging it in an arch over the drop-off point. After lowering the cargo to stack atop the locks of another container on the ship, she raises the spreader and rushes backward to pick up another load. Some days she’ll load a ship, other days she moves cargo off a ship onto boom trucks that bring the containers to other trucks or the rail lines that will transport the goods to stores nationwide. “At the end of the day when I see the ship full and sailing away, I sometimes think, `Wow, I am part of that,”‘ she said. Some days Lakos will move 40 containers an hour, a feat with which she shares credit with the ground crew. However, when things aren’t running as smoothly, she might only move 20 an hour. “Everyone used to ask, `Why don’t you go into clerking?”‘ she said about her first years in the union. “I’d just say, `Well that’s just not something I’m interested in.”‘ She prefers heavy equipment. After a decade on the docks, she’s learned to drive top handlers, forklifts and trans cranes before she was trained on the gantry cranes that dominate the port’s skyline. Lakos passed the training course on her first try. Her husband, Pete, who’s also a crane operator at the twin ports, loves it that his 5-foot-5 wife can move a 40-ton filled container as well as any man. “She has set the standard for women and broken down a lot of barriers,” the 39-year-old said. “She’s doing a man’s job but she balances it really well. She’s really feminine and dresses up like any woman. When we’re out, people are always in shock that she drives a big crane.” While her fellow dockworkers are no longer surprised to Lakos climbing down the ladder after her shift, it might be a while longer before the idea of women operating cranes becomes as familiar for the general public. “Whenever we go out and my husband asks people to guess what I do, the first thing a guy usually guesses is a stripper,” she said. firstname.lastname@example.org 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!