In Tacoma, Santa Claus is a longshore worker

Dragan Butorac would be more at home on a container terminal than hunched over a desk. He is busily taking notes with his cell phone held precariously between his ear and shoulder as a woman named Maria is telling him about her children.

Thanks to the efforts of Tacoma’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 23, Maria’s family – and approximately 400 other families throughout Tacoma and Fife – will have a Christmas this year.

Local 23 has been providing Christmas to needy families for longer than most longshore members can remember.

“Today, we work through the Tacoma and Fife School Districts and ask that each school in the districts identify a deserving student from a needy family,” explained Butorac, Local 23’s charities director, on Tuesday.

“We call each family to ask permission, but we haven’t yet had a family say no. Everyone wants their children to have a Christmas, no matter their situation.”

Sixty families will receive a $200 Fred Meyer gift certificate that can be used to purchase toys, clothing and food. Others, depending on their need, will receive toys, bicycles and gift cards.

“For many people, the last few years have been very tough,” said Butorac. “We are continuing a long tradition among the longshore of helping the needy in our community.”

Local 23 members also challenge each other to collect toys and bicycles for children who may otherwise miss Santa’s annual visit. By way of American Legion Post #2, toys and bikes are given to military families though the Fort Lewis Family Support Center.

“Christmas is particularly difficult for young military families with mothers or fathers serving in Iraq,” Butorac noted. “In the case of the Army Reserve, many may have gone from making a very good living as a civilian to just a fraction of their salary as a reservist.”

The toys and bikes are also delivered to other community groups, including the YWCA’s Women’s Shelter, St. Leo’s Tacoma Hospitality Kitchen, the Chance Program for foster children, and finally, to the families of striking Teamsters Local 66.

The evidence of the toy and bike drive’s success is apparent, as Butorac stands dwarfed by a mountain of donations.

“As longshore workers, we know we are fortunate to have good jobs that assure our families a comfortable life,” Butorac said. “But we are also members of our community, and as such, feel it is our responsibility to give back.”

The thought of making those toy and bike deliveries paints a big smile across the face of union member Mike Jagielski.

“It’s definitely a tear-jerker,” he said. “When you meet these families, it really makes you want to redouble your efforts for next year.”