What is a Stevedore?

Mary McMahon

A stevedore is someone who loads and unloads ships, typically working in a team to ensure that the process is smooth and efficient. People who do this job are iconic figures in many cultures, thanks to their extreme strength and infamously impolite mouths; historically, they were known for having quite salty language, just like sailors. They have also played a vital role in the labor movement in many parts of the world, and today, stevedores tend to be members of unions, ensuring that they receive reasonable rates of pay and protection from grueling hours and dangerous conditions.

A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.
A stevedore watches as cargo is loaded onto a ship.

People have used this term to describe someone who handles the loading and unloading of ships since the 1700s. It comes from the Spanish estibador, which is derived from estibar, “to stow,” a word that in turn originates in the Latin word stipare, “to pack.” The usage of the word undoubtedly spread through sailors, who are famous for bringing snippets of foreign language around the world with them.

Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.
Cargo is loaded and unloaded from ships by a stevedore.

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In addition to being referred to as a stevedore, these dock workers are also known as longshoremen or dockers, depending on regional preference. “Longshoreman” is especially common in North America, and is probably derived from “man along the shore,” a very apt description of someone who does this job on a continent where many ships are unloaded offshore and onto small boats to ensure that their goods reached small communities.

Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.
Stowing cargo on a ship became easier with the advent of shipping containers.

By tradition, stevedores are hired by the day, as needed, although some ports maintain a permanent dock staff. Brute strength isn't the only trait the person possesses, although it is important. In addition to being strong, the individual must also be very familiar with ships, as he or she needs to know the best way to stow a wide variety of cargo items. Historically, this was extremely difficult, thanks to the use of varied packing containers; now that most cargo goes by container, this part of the job is a little less challenging.

Stevedores also have to be able to handle dock equipment, such as cranes and forklifts, safely and efficiently, and they need to be very aware of emerging safety issues, including hazardous materials on board the ship and around the docks. They are often encouraged to look out for each other on the docks, where conditions can change rapidly, and they have carried this fellowship with them in the tradition of unionization. Someone who wishes to join the union as a stevedore must generally exhibit the basic necessary skills before he or she will be accepted, and in some ports, a person cannot get work without a union card, making membership critical.

A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.
A stevedore is also referred to as a longshoreman.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - It was also very dangerous work. I think it basically still is, although now they mostly use machines to move the crates. Back then it was all winches and pulleys and if something failed, because of a lack of funds, or care, then people would die, or be maimed. And, of course, there was no insurance, so they would be reduced to begging.


I actually saw an exhibit the other day on a revolution that occurred because of stevedores. They were working in atrocious conditions and were being paid a pittance and in the end they decided to have a stevedore strike. When you think about it, it's a situation ripe for unions to form, because it's a relatively skilled profession in that you need to know what you're doing, but you can use uneducated workers who might not know how much money they should be paid.

And the workers are all going to be big, brawny men (at least back in the day) who aren't going to easily give in to intimidation (or be pleased at any attempt at it).

So I can well believe that they banded together to form unions and improve their working conditions.

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