A stevedore, longshoreman, docker or dockworker is a waterfront manual laborer who is involved in loading and unloading ships, trucks, trains or airplanes.

After the shipping container revolution of the 1960s, the number of dockworkers required declined by over 90%, and the term "stevedore" has increasingly come to mean a stevedoring firm that contracts with a port, shipowner, or charterer to load and unload a vessel.[1][2]


The word stevedore originated in Portugal or Spain, and entered the English language through its use by sailors.[3] It started as a phonetic spelling of estivador (Portuguese) or estibador (Spanish), meaning a man who loads ships and stows cargo, which was the original meaning of stevedore (though there is a secondary meaning of "a man who stuffs" in Spanish); compare Latin stīpāre meaning to stuff, as in to fill with stuffing.[4] In the United Kingdom, people who load and unload ships are usually called dockers, in Australia dockers or wharfies, while in the United States and Canada the term longshoreman, derived from man-along-the-shore, is used.[5] Before extensive use of container ships and shore-based handling machinery in the United States, longshoremen referred exclusively to the dockworkers, while stevedores, in a separate trade union, worked on the ships, operating ship's cranes and moving cargo. In Canada, the term stevedore has also been used, for example, in the name of the Western Stevedoring Company, Ltd., based in Vancouver, B.C., in the 1950s.[6]

Loading and unloading ships

Loading and unloading ships requires knowledge of the operation of loading equipment, the proper techniques for lifting and stowing cargo, and correct handling of hazardous materials. In addition, workers must be physically strong and able to follow orders attentively. In order to unload a ship successfully, many longshoremen are needed. There is only a limited amount of time that a ship can be at a port, so they need to get their jobs done quickly.

In earlier days before the introduction of containerization, men who loaded and unloaded ships had to tie down cargoes with rope. A type of stopper knot is called the stevedore knot. The methods of securely tying up parcels of goods is called stevedore lashing or stevedore knotting. While loading a general cargo vessel, they use dunnage, which are pieces of wood (or nowadays sometimes strong inflatable dunnage bags) set down to keep the cargo out of any water that might be lying in the hold or are placed as shims between cargo crates for load securing.

Today, the vast majority of non-bulk cargo is transported in intermodal containers.[7] The containers arrive at a port by truck, rail, or another ship and are stacked in the port's storage area. When the ship that will be transporting them arrives, the containers that it is offloading are unloaded by a crane. The containers either leave the port by truck or rail or are put in the storage area until they are put on another ship. Once the ship is offloaded, the containers it is leaving with are brought to the dock by truck. A crane lifts the containers from the trucks into the ship. As the containers pile up in the ship, the workers connect them to the ship and to each other. The jobs involved include the crane operators, the workers who connect the containers to the ship and each other, the truck drivers that transport the containers from the dock and storage area, the workers who track the containers in the storage area as they are loaded and unloaded, as well as various supervisors. Those workers at the port who handle and move the containers are likely to be considered stevedores or longshoremen.

Before containerization, freight was often handled with a longshoreman’s hook, a tool which became emblematic of the profession (mostly on the west coast of the United States and Canada).[8]

Traditionally, stevedores had no fixed job, but would arrive at the docks in the morning seeking employment for the day. London dockers called this practice standing on the stones,[9] while in the United States it was referred to as shaping up or assembling for the shape-up,[10][11] or catching the breaks. In Britain, due to changes in employment laws, such jobs have either become permanent or have been converted to temporary jobs.

Dock workers have been a prominent part of the modern labor movement.[12]

By country


In Australia, the informal term "wharfie" (from wharf labourer) and the formal "waterside worker", include the variety of occupations covered in other countries by words like stevedore. The term "stevedore" is also sometimes used, as in the company name Patrick Stevedores. The term "docker" is also sometimes used, however in Australia this usually refers to a harbor pilot.

The Maritime Union of Australia has coverage of these workers, and fought a substantial industrial battle in the 1998 Australian waterfront dispute to prevent the contracting out of work to non-union workers.

In 1943 stevedores in Melbourne and Sydney were deliberately exposed to mustard gas while unloading the ship Idomeneus. The result was death and permanent disability—all as a result of military secrecy.[13]

New Zealand

New Zealand usage is very similar to the Australian version; "waterside workers" are also known as "wharfies." The 1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute, involving New Zealand stevedores, was the largest and most bitter industrial dispute in the country's history.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the definition of a stevedore varies from port to port. In some ports, only the highly skilled master of a loading gang is referred to as a "stevedore". "Docker" is the usual general term used in the UK for a worker who loads or unloads ships and performs various other jobs required at a sea port.

In some ports a Stevedore is a person who decides where cargo is stowed on a ship, in order for safe stowage and even balance of a ship. It is not a hands-on role.

It was once known to refer those working on a ship—loading or unloading the cargo—as stevedores, while those working on the quayside were called dockers.

United States

In present-day American waterfront usage, a stevedore is usually a person or a company who manages the operation of loading or unloading a ship. In the early 19th century, the word was usually applied to black laborers or slaves who loaded and unloaded bales of cotton and other freight on and off of riverboats. In Two Years Before the Mast (1840), the author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. describes the steeving of a merchant sailing ship in 1834. This was the process of taking a mostly-full hold and cramming in more material. In this case, the hold was filled with hides from the California hide trade up to four feet below the deckhead (equivalent of 'ceiling'). "Books" composed of 25–50 cattle skins folded into a bundle were prepared, and a small opening created in the middle of one of the existing stacks. Then the book was shoved in by use of a pair of thick strong pieces of wood called steeves. The steeves had one end shaped as a wedge which was placed into the middle of a book to shove it into the stack. The other ends were pushed on by means of block and tackle attached to the hull and overhead beams and hauled on by sailors.

Typically one ethnic group dominated the stevedore market in a port, usually the Irish Catholics, as seen in the 1954 film about New York On the Waterfront.[14] In New Orleans there was competition between the Irish and the blacks.[15]

In the Port of Baltimore, Polish Americans dominated. In the 1930s, about 80% of the Baltimore's longshoremen were Polish or of Polish descent.[16] The port of Baltimore had an international reputation of fast cargo handling credited to the well-organized gang system that was nearly free of corruption, wildcat strikes, and repeated work stoppages of its other East coast counterparts. In fact, the New York Anti-Crime Commission and the Waterfront Commission looked upon the Baltimore system as the ideal one for all ports. The hiring of longshoremen in Baltimore by the gang system dates back to 1913, when the ILA was first formed. The Polish longshoremen began setting up the system by selecting the most skilled men to lead them. This newly formed gang would usually work for the same company, which would give the priority to the gang. During the times where there was no work within the particular company, the gang would work elsewhere, or even divide to aid other groups in their work, which would speed up the work and would make it more efficient[17] In an environment as dangerous as a busy waterfront, Baltimore's gangs always operated together as a unit, because the experience let them know what each member would do at any given time making a water front a much safer place.[18] At the beginning of the Second World War Polish predominance in the Port of Baltimore would significantly diminish as many Poles were drafted.

It is common to use the terms "stevedore" and "longshoreman" interchangeably.[17] The U.S. Congress has done so in the Ship Mortgage Act, 46 app. U.S.C. section 31301(5)(C) which designates both "crew wages" and "stevedore wages" as preferred maritime liens. The intent of the statute was to give the wages of the seamen and longshoremen the same level of protection. Sometimes the word "stevedore" is used to mean "man who loads and unloads a ship" as the British "docker".

Today, a stevedore typically owns equipment used in the loading or discharge operation and hires longshoremen who load and unload cargo under the direction of a stevedore superintendent. This type of work along the East Coast waterfront was characteristic of ports like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Today, a commercial stevedoring company also may contract with a terminal owner to manage all terminal operations. Many large container ship operators have established in-house stevedoring operations to handle cargo at their own terminals and to provide stevedoring services to other container carriers.

One union within the AFL-CIO represent longshoremen: the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents longshoremen on the East Coast, on the Great Lakes and connected waterways and along the Gulf of Mexico. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents longshoremen along the West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska, was formerly affiliated with the AFL-CIO but disaffiliated in 2013.

Former stevedores and longshoremen include:

  • Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox recited her poem, The Stevedores (which includes the lyric: "Here's to the Army stevedores, lusty and virile and strong ... ") while visiting a camp of 9,000 stevedores in France during World War I.[21]
  • In 1949, reporter Malcolm Johnson was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a 24-part investigative series titled Crime on the Waterfront, published in the New York Sun.
  • The material from Malcolm Johnson's investigative series was fictionalized and used as a basis for the influential film On the Waterfront (1954), starring Marlon Brando as a longshoreman, and the working conditions on the docks figure significantly in the film's plot. On the Waterfront was a critical and commercial success that received twelve Academy Award nominations, and won eight including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. The American Film Institute ranked it the 8th-greatest American movie of all time in 1997 and 19th in 2007.[22]
  • Playwright Arthur Miller was involved in the early stages of the development of On the Waterfront; his play A View from the Bridge (1955) also deals with the troubled life of a longshoreman.[23]
  • In season 2 of the HBO series The Wire, which first aired in 2003, the Stevedore Union and its members working in Baltimore, particularly Frank Sobotka, figure prominently in the second season's story.[24][25]
  • The American film Kill the Irishman (2011) features Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene, head of the Longshoreman's Union.[26]

See also


  1. Scruttons Ltd v Midland Silicones Ltd
  2. The Eurymedon
  3. David Maclachlan (1875). A Treatise on the Law of Merchant Shipping. W. Maxwell & Son. pp. 387–.
  4. "Stevedores - definition of stevedores by The Free Dictionary".
  5. America on the Move collection Archived 2007-06-12 at the Wayback Machine
  6. Paul Hellyer Papers, Library and Archives Canada, MG32 B33, Vol. 251.
  7. Marc Levinson (2006). The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 0-691-12324-1.
  8. "Uniform Containerization of Freight: Early Steps in the Evolution of an Idea". Business History Review. 43 (1): 84–87. 1969. doi:10.2307/3111989. JSTOR 3111989.
  9. Standing on the Stones BFI Film and TV Database, London Dockers (1964)
  10. "shape-up". Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-05-15.
  11. Blum, Howard (March 13, 1978). "The 'Shape- Up' on Piers Gives Way to 'Show- Up'". New York Times. Retrieved 2019-10-13.
  12. "British History in depth: Banners of the British Labour Movement". BBC.
  13. Plunkett, Geoff (2014). Death by Mustard. Big Sky. ISBN 978-1-922132-91-8.
  14. Fisher, James T. (2010). On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York.
  15. Arnesen, Eric (1994). Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863–1923.
  16. Hollowak, Thomas L. (1996). A History of Polish Longshoremen and Their Role in the Establishment of a Union at the Port of Baltimore. Baltimore: History Press.
  17. Delich, Helen. "Noted for Fast, Efficient Work Baltimore System of Operating is Termed Ideal for All Ports." Baltimore Sun, 1955.
  18. Delich, Helen. "Ganging Up on the Water Front." Baltimore Sun, 1954.
  19. Peter MacKay learned to appreciate Arctic life working as a stevedore | National Post. (2012-08-25). Retrieved on 2013-08-15.
  20. Glenn Seaborg Tribute: A Man in Full. Retrieved on 2013-08-15.
  21. Scott, Emmett J. Scott's Official History of The American Negro in the World War. Retrieved 2014-02-09.
  22. Rapf, Joanna E. (2003). On the Waterfront. Cambridge University Press.
  23. Epstein, Arthur D. (1965). "A Look at A View from the Bridge". Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 7 (1): 109–122.
  24. Warren, Kenneth W. (2011). "Sociology and The Wire". Critical Inquiry. 38 (1): 200–207. doi:10.1086/661649.
  25. Herbert, Daniel (2012). "'It Is What It Is': The Wire and the Politics of Anti-Allegorical Television Drama". Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 29 (3): 191–202. doi:10.1080/10509200903120047.
  26. Porrello, Rick (2011). Kill the Irishman. Simon and Schuster.

Further reading

  • Arnesen, Eric (1994). Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863–1923.
  • Connolly, Michael C. (2010). Seated by the Sea: The Maritime History of Portland, Maine, and Its Irish Longshoremen. University Press of Florida.
  • Callebert, Ralph (2017). On Durban's Docks: Zulu Workers, Rural Households, Global Labor. University of Rochester Press.
  • Davis, Colin J. (2003). Waterfront Revolts: New York and London Dockworkers, 1946–61.
  • Land, Isaac (2007). "Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution". Journal of Social History. 40 (3): 731–743. doi:10.1353/jsh.2007.0051.
  • Mello, William J. (2010). New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks.
  • Nelson, Bruce (1990). Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s.
  • Parnaby, Andrew (2008). Citizen Docker: Making a New Deal on the Vancouver Waterfront, 1919–1939.
  • Phillips, Jim (2005). "Class and Industrial Relations in Britain: The 'Long' Mid-century and the Case of Port Transport, 1920–70". Twentieth Century British History. 16 (1): 52–73. doi:10.1093/tcbh/hwi009.
  • Safford, Jeffrey J. (2008). "The Pacific Coast Maritime Strike of 1936: Another View". Pacific Historical Review. 77 (4): 585–615. doi:10.1525/phr.2008.77.4.585.
  • Vaughan Wilson, Matt (2008). "The 1911 Waterfront Strikes in Glasgow: Trade Unions and Rank-and-File Militancy in the Labour Unrest of 1910–1914". International Review of Social History. 53 (2): 261–292. doi:10.1017/S0020859008003441.
  • Velasco e Cruz, Maria Cecília (2006). "Puzzling Out Slave Origins in Rio de Janeiro Port Unionism: The 1906 Strike and the Sociedade de Resistência dos Trabalhadores em Trapiche e Café". Hispanic American Historical Review. 86 (2): 205–245. doi:10.1215/00182168-2005-002.
  • "Longshore Workers and Their Unions". Waterfront Workers History Project.
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