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Stevedores on a New York dock loading barrels of corn syrup onto a barge on the Hudson River. Photograph by Lewis Hine, c. 1912
Dockers, when loading bagged cargo - MS Rothenstein, North German Lloyd Port Sudan 1960

A stevedore, dockworker, docker, dock laborer, wharfie, wharf rat, and/or longshoreman is a waterfront manual laborer who is involved in loading and unloading ships.


  • Origin of word 1
  • Loading and unloading ships 2
  • By country 3
    • Australia 3.1
    • New Zealand 3.2
    • United Kingdom 3.3
    • United States 3.4
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Origin of word

The word stevedore originated in Portugal or Spain, and entered the English language through its use by sailors. It started as a phonetic spelling of estivador (Portuguese) or estibador (Spanish), meaning a man who stuffs, here in the sense of a man who loads ships, which was the original meaning of stevedore; compare Latin stīpāre meaning to stuff, as in to fill with stuffing.[1] In the United Kingdom, men who load and unload ships are usually called dockers, in Australia wharfies, while in the United States and Canada the term longshoreman, derived from man-along-the-shore, is used.[2] 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.[3]

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 be able to follow orders attentively.

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.[4] 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).[5]

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",[6] while in the United States it was referred to as Shaping.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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 man who loads or unloads ships and performs various other jobs required at a sea port.

It was once known to refer the those working on a ship—loading or unloading the cargo—as stevedores, while those working on the quayside were called dockers. Thus, the stevedores still did the "stuffing" and "unstuffing", with the dockers staying on the dock.

United States

Dockworkers loading a tank in Brooklyn NY, Continental Piers - 1959

In present-day American waterfront usage, a stevedore is usually a man or a company who manages the operation of loading or unloading a ship. In the 1800s, the word was usually applied to black laborers who loaded and unloaded bales of cotton and other freight on and off 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.[10] In New Orleans there was competition between the Irish and the blacks.[11]

In 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[13] 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.[14] 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 but inaccurate to use the terms "stevedore" and "longshoreman" interchangeably.[13] However, even 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. Nevertheless, sometimes the word "stevedore" is still 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.

A docker lashes down cargo aboard a container ship.

Former stevedores and longshoremen include:

In popular culture

  • In the television series 24, Jack Bauer is in hiding as Frank Flynn, a longshoreman, at the beginning of Season 5. In the 24: Underground comic books, his cover identity of Borys is also a longshoreman.
  • In episode 16, season 4 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy notes that while reading her mother's mind in the past, she learned that Giles "makes love like a stevedore". She then asks Giles "What's a stevedore?"
  • 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. This material was fictionalized and used as a basis for the influential film, On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando as a longshoreman, and the working conditions on the docks figure significantly in the film's plot. Playwright Arthur Miller was involved in the early stages of the development of the film, and his play A View from the Bridge also deals with the troubled life of a longshoreman.
  • In the HBO Series The Wire, the Stevedore Union and its members, particularly Frank Sobotka, working in Baltimore figure prominently in the second season's story.
  • In the song by Jimmy Nail, Big River there is the line, "Now all the capstans and the cargo boats and stevedores are gone."
  • Kill the Irishman features Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene head of the Longshoreman's Union.
  • Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox recited her poem, The Stevedores ("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.[17]
  • In the movie A League Of Their Own, Doris Murphy, played by Rosie O'Donnell, plays for the Staten Island Stevedores prior to joining the Rockford Peaches.[18]
  • In the television series Nash Bridges, Nash's father, Nick Bridges, is a retired Longshoreman.

See also


  1. ^ "Stevedores - definition of stevedores by The Free Dictionary". 
  2. ^ America on the Move collection
  3. ^ Paul Hellyer Papers, Library and Archives Canada, MG32 B33, Vol. 251.
  4. ^ Marc Levinson (2006). The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton Univ. Press.  
  5. ^ "Uniform Containerization of Freight: Early Steps in the Evolution of an Idea".  
  6. ^ standing on the stones BFI Film and TV Database, London Dockers (1964)
  7. ^ "Shaping". Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-05-15. 
  8. ^ "BBC - History - British History in depth: Banners of the British Labour Movement". 
  9. ^ Plunkett, Geoff (2014). Death by Mustard. Big Sky.  
  10. ^ Fisher, James T. (2010). On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. 
  11. ^ Arnesen, Eric (1994). Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863–1923. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ a b Delich, Helen. "Noted for Fast, Efficient Work Baltimore System of Operating is Termed Ideal for All Ports." Baltimore Sun, 1955.
  14. ^ Delich, Helen. "Ganging Up on the Water Front." Baltimore Sun, 1954.
  15. ^ Peter MacKay learned to appreciate Arctic life working as a stevedore | National Post. (2012-08-25). Retrieved on 2013-08-15.
  16. ^ Glenn Seaborg Tribute: A Man in Full. Retrieved on 2013-08-15.
  17. ^  
  18. ^ Russell, Candice (1992-07-01). "Double Feature Director Penny Marshall`s All-stars Knock One Out Of The Park With A League Of Their Own". Sun-Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. Retrieved 2015-03-30. 

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. 
  • 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".  
  • 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, c. 1920–70". Twentieth Century British History 16 (1): 52–73. 
  • Safford, Jeffrey J. (2008). "The Pacific Coast Maritime Strike of 1936: Another View".  
  • Vaughan Wilson, Matt (2008). "The 1911 Waterfront Strikes in Glasgow: Trade Unions and Rank-and-File Militancy in the Labour Unrest of 1910–1914".  
  • 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".  
  • "Longshore Workers and Their Unions".  

External links

  • "The Irish on the Docks of Portland" by Michael Connolly
  •,the Port of Antwerp in pictures, maritime website with port pictures taken by an Antwerp dockworker.
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