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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. 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. 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.
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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.
In earlier days before the introduction of containerisation, 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. 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.
Because they work outdoors in all types of weather, these workers adopted a type of cap that has a snug fit, is warm, and easily stowed in a pocket. These are a type of beanie or watch cap called variously stevedore's cap or stevedore's hat.
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", while in the United States it was referred to as Shaping. In Britain, due to changes in employment laws, such jobs have either become permanent or have been converted to temporary jobs.
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 harbour 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.
New Zealand usage is highly 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.
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.
In present-day United States waterfront word 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. 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 for such port like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia.
However, the Port of Baltimore, unlike Port of Boston or the Port of New York and New Jersey, which were dominated by Irish and German immigrants, hired mostly stevedores and longshoremen who were overwhelmingly Polish. In the 1930s, about 80% of the Baltimore's longshoremen were Polish or of Polish descent. 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 constant 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.
In Two Years Before the Mast, the author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. describes the steeving of a merchant sailing ship. 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.
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 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. At the beginning of the Second World War Polish predominance in the Port of Baltimore would significantly diminish as many Poles left to fight the war.
It is common but inaccurate to use the terms "stevedore" and "longshoreman" interchangeably. 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 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.
Two unions within the AFL-CIO represent longshoremen in the United States: 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, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents longshoremen along the West Coast, in Hawaii and Alaska, and, through an affiliate, in Canada, Anchorage, Alaska is represented by an independent Union Anchorage Independent Longshoremens Union which is not affiliated with ILWU.
Former stevedores and longshoremen include:
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