In the opening chapters of Moby Dick, Herman Melville describes a diverse labor force waiting to board New Bedford’s whaling ships.

Men from New Hampshire mingle with Feegeeans, Erromanggoans and Tongatobooarrs from the Pacific Islands. The Cape Verdeans, from a different set of islands off West Africa, appear on Melville’s whaling ships too. But unlike the Erromanggoan whalers, many Cape Verdeans picked up work onshore, and their descendants are still working New Bedford’s waterfront today.

“It started back in the whaleboat days,” said Jeffrey Silva, a 65-year-old longshoreman recalling the origins of a profession that his grandfather and father also belonged to. “If you couldn’t get on the whaling boats or fishing boats, you were still on the waterfront so you unloaded the ships for the products to go to the mills.”

Silva has been unloading ships since 1973, when he says close to three-fourths of the 60 longshoremen unloading cargo in New Bedford were of Cape Verdean descent. But as container ships grew to the huge sizes we see today, Silva said work began to dry up on New Bedford’s docks — the ships could no longer fit through the hurricane barrier that protects the city’s harbor. Membership in Silva’s union, Local 1413 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, began a long and slow decline.

Today, Local 1413 is about half the size it used to be. The 35 longshoremen still working the waterfront get a fraction of the hours they used to. And dues from union members no longer cover the cost of supporting a union hall. The building where longshoremen used to christen their babies and pick up their checks fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2016.

“Last year we had probably about 11 vessels of some fruit juices, which helped us out a lot,” said Kevin Rose, the union’s current president, “but other than that we haven't had anything happening down here.”

But half a mile from the cracked foundation of the old union hall, there’s a new industry moving onto New Bedford’s waterfront, and Rose says it could give Local 1413 a chance to rebuild.

Vineyard Wind, a joint offshore wind venture backed by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and the Basque utility Avangrid, has chosen New Bedford as a staging area for the construction of America’s first major offshore wind farm.

This spring, the 300-year-old seaport will receive some of the largest cargo it has ever seen. Turbines taller than the biggest skyscrapers in Boston will be arriving in pieces aboard ships from France. Sixty-two of them will eventually form a wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard that is expected to generate 800 megawatts of electricity by 2025, enough to power about 400,000 homes in Massachusetts.

The turbines will first be unloaded at a special pier in New Bedford that the State of Massachusetts built at a cost of $120 million, with another $45 million in renovations planned for the near future. The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, billed as America’s first pier custom-built for the offshore wind industry, opened in 2015, preceding a series of competing facilities under construction in other ports by nearly a decade.

Rose, a third-generation longshoreman, said the number of ships expected to arrive in New Bedford this decade could radically increase the amount of work his union members are offered. Rose and other leaders from the ILA are negotiating with Vineyard Wind this winter to establish a role for New Bedford’s longshoremen on the project.

“It's life changing,” Rose said, “and the money is going to be pretty amazing. I don't think anybody's seen that kind of money in this area for — at all, nevermind.”

If Local 1413 can secure that work, Rose and other union members say it would be more than just a pay raise. Vern Rudolph, who joined Local 1413 fifteen years ago, said unloading fruit on New Bedford’s docks provided money and a routine that was missing from his life.

“Being a longshoreman saved my life,” Rudolph said. “I was in some heavy stuff on the streets. I was a bad guy one time in my life, you know what I mean?”

Rudolph said the offshore wind industry could do the same for a new generation of longshoremen from New Bedford, a city that lags behind most of Massachusetts in average income and educational attainment.

“This is going to change a lot of lives in this city,” Rudolph said. “Especially the young guys, the kids we got coming up behind us. It's only gonna get worse unless we put something in place where these guys can learn a trade and make good money doing it.”

Local 1413’s track record of recruiting young people of color could also be a compelling pitch to offshore wind developers with diversity, equity and inclusion goals. In press releases and public speeches, Vineyard Wind’s executives have said they are prioritizing women and people of color in their hiring practices. The company also signed a project labor agreement in 2021 that set diversity targets for construction jobs.

Due to the idiosyncrasies of federal labor law, which prevents unions outside the construction industry from signing project labor agreements, the agreement could not include the International Longshoremen’s Association. But Rudolph said the ILA still offers a concrete way for Vineyard Wind to build the diverse workforce it’s promising.

“You have all the color you need — it’s in my union, okay?” Rudolph said. “It’s as simple as that.”

But as much as a contract seems like a win-win to Rudolph, his union is waiting nervously for the kind of hiring commitments that other unions have already signed with Vineyard Wind. Some longshoremen worry they are already getting squeezed out of preparatory work happening on the pier.

Vineyard Wind and the contractor supplying its turbines, General Electric, declined to comment. But Rose, the president of Local 1413, said his longshoremen have been tying up the lines from Vineyard Wind’s boats while workers they don’t recognize handle the equipment onboard.

“I felt that they were just giving us the lines just to pacify us,” Rose said.

Rose acknowledges that the turbines arriving later this spring will be much larger than the wood palettes of break-bulk cargo that New Bedford’s longshoremen are used to unloading. But Rose says Local 1413 could be trained to handle wind turbines — it’s just that such training is beyond the scope of his union’s current negotiations with Vineyard Wind.

For now, Rose said the ILA is fighting for full-time jobs on the project, a foothold that Rose hopes will lead to a bigger role than just tying boats to the pier.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.