Dock workers

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Dock workers 1892/2006.
On the left, showers returning from coal handling in the Hamburg harbor; right stevedoring workers lashing on board a container ship

Dock workers are workers who work in sea ​​ports or larger inland ports . Their workplaces are ships , quays , shipyards , storage facilities , container parking spaces and other outdoor storage areas. They often work at different locations, especially outdoors and in shifts . The containerization , which began in 1950 and has the consequence that ship freight traffic is now almost exclusively via standardized containers , has significantly changed the job description of the port worker and the composition of the resident population in the vicinity of the port.

Today, dock workers can have various apprenticeships; they were and are often still skilled craftsmen in metal and woodworking professions, showmen , neighborhood people , tally men or ewer guides . Regional, the concept was rumen Klopper in use, along the Rhine and the Rhine cadets . Since 2006 there is the new apprenticeship of the port skipper . But there are also many unskilled workers who hire out as dock workers.

Modern dock worker

Change in activities in the port due to container handling
Change in activities in the port due to container handling

Port workers , recently also referred to as “seaport logistics specialists”, have special training in loading and unloading ships or trucks and wagons in the port. They stow or unload the goods in the ocean-going vessel according to the stowage plans and positions and store them in covered warehouses or open-air warehouses, observing the loading and unloading regulations. To do this, they set and operate ship loading gear, for example various floor conveyors and hoists. Internationally, the profession is called Stevedore (from the Portuguese estivador).

Since the beginning of the 1980s, the job of the port worker has changed permanently due to the changes in sea transport to container loading. Today more than 95% of all general cargo in sea transport is loaded in containers . The loading process of the containers with general cargo usually no longer takes place in the seaports. As a result, the profession of dock worker or, better, dock worker has changed to a technical activity for which a high level of qualification is necessary. Driving the huge industrial trucks and container cranes requires thorough training and instruction, as the worker here works with equipment worth several million euros. In addition, it is necessary that the port workers today get an insight into the logistics of the port industry so that they understand the interrelationships of the activities. Whereas in the past the foreman or shift supervisor was responsible for work errors, today it is up to every worker involved to take responsibility for errors that occur. In addition, skilled dock workers now have an insight into the functioning and use of logistical "software" that is used to control and monitor container loading and storage.

The increase in job responsibility and qualifications is also reflected in the high level of wages paid. Dock workers are one of the best-paid workers in industry today.

personal requirements

No specific training is required for access to activities as a port worker. In the past, however, physical resilience and manual training were expected or required. A car driver's license and also a forklift driver's license are welcome because of the changing places of work. Depending on the place of work, special physical requirements such as physical strength or aptitude for altitude may also be required.

The requirement profile for port workers has fundamentally changed since the 1980s. For the driving of certain industrial trucks, training to become a docker and technical certificates are required. The classic port worker, who should be able to withstand physical strain, is rarely in demand in this form today. Mental abilities and the ability to combine (for logistical processes) also play a major role. Not least for this reason, port work is no longer the domain of men today. More and more women are pushing into the technical profession of port workers. Classic professions in the port, such as stevedores on general cargo ships, roosters, tally man and load control, have meanwhile been largely displaced and replaced by other professions and activities (container dispatcher, ship planner, space planner, etc.). As before, however, there is also work that is associated with strong physical and physical strain (see picture example: container lashing on board of seagoing ships by stevedoring workers).


Dockworkers at a Dock in New York City (circa 1912)

Until containerization , which began in the middle of the 20th century and led to the fact that shipping today almost exclusively transports standardized containers, millions of dock workers worldwide were required to move the sacks, boxes and barrels that were transported by ship. to be loaded onto the ships or brought from the ships to the piers and from there to the warehouses. At the end of the 19th century, 15 different professional groups belonged to the port workers in the Port of Hamburg. After the largest group of showers, the Ewer leaders were numerically significant. They took care of the transport of the goods to and from the seagoing vessels by water. So-called barges were used for this purpose . Although the importance of the Ewerführung decreased since the 1860s, because the ships were increasingly no longer loaded and unloaded "in the river" but at the newly built quays , this trade was the most important branch of Hamburg's port shipping. Even moored at the quay ships were on the water side of Ewerführern deleted and loaded, so that for shipowners unproductive time spent stopped short as possible. The wharf workers were also a large professional group. Your responsibility lay in loading cargo from the ships into the warehouses on the quays or on carts or in railroad cars for immediate onward transport. Storage workers moved the goods around the warehouses and loaded the barges that brought the goods to the ships. In addition to these occupational groups, there were others such as coal workers, grain workers, boiler cleaners , ship cleaners , ship painters and machinists.

As since the beginning of shipping, the work was almost exclusively dependent on the physical strength of the workers. Mechanization or machine-assisted transport in ships was largely absent until the first half of the 20th century, because the general cargo was too different to gain efficiency gains.

Everyday work

Dock workers at a pier in the port of Hamburg in 1900
Dock workers in New York transporting banana trees, around 1941/1942

When a ship was ready for loading, each individual item was taken from the interim storage facility, counted again and noted on a test sheet, and then transported individually to the ship. Docking places for ships that have been loaded are therefore often characterized by a large number of boxes, cardboard boxes and barrels that are waiting to be stowed in the hold. Their labor-intensive loading was the job of the dock workers. Unloading was no less complicated, labor-intensive, and physically demanding. Arriving ships had very different types of cargo in their holds, which had to be unloaded in different ways: Banana trees weighing 40 kilograms were typically carried individually on their backs from the cargo holds over gangways. Coffee sacks weighing 30 kilograms, on the other hand, were first piled up on pallets, then brought to the quay using winches and then transported individually from there.

Forklift trucks, which had been in use in the industry since 1920, were also used in the port area from 1950, for example to bring pallets from the warehouses to the landing stages, and some ports also had conveyor belts with which sacks filled with coffee beans and potatoes or banana trees between the port quays and cargo space has been transported. Even with these aids, the work of the stevedores , as these dock workers were called, remained extremely physically demanding. Stowers had to be able to handle very different types of cargo: in the morning they unloaded small boxes with sensitive tropical fruits, in the afternoon they had to unload steel cables weighing tons. The risk of accidents during this work was extremely high. In the French port city of Marseille , 47 traffic jams were killed in accidents at work between 1947 and 1957. In 1950, every second stevedore had an accident at work in Manchester, an important port city for shipping with America. Every sixth stevedore was forced to be hospitalized because of an occupational accident.

The labor-intensive loading method had several consequences. Shipping was expensive, so international trade was only interesting for fewer goods. Ships also had relatively long berthing times in the port, so that investments in larger ships or better quays were hardly worthwhile. Analysts estimated that 60 to 75 percent of freight costs were caused by the form of loading and unloading.


In many regions of the world, port work was casual work until the middle of the 20th century; the chance of work was determined by the number of ships in port. Days that offered all workers employment because a ship had to be loaded or unloaded with perishable goods alternated with days when there was no employment for any. Dock workers had to compete with each other every day to be hired. The form in which this hiring took place differed only slightly in the individual port cities of the world. In Marseille, the typical day began a longshoreman in 1947 to 6:30 in the morning on the Place de la Juliette, where the workers were waiting by a foreman for his transition were selected. In San Francisco, dock workers waited on a sidewalk near the Ferry Building to be hired. In Liverpool, hired dock workers gathered at a designated point on the Liverpool Overhead Railway .

The form of daily employment made the process of offering and hiring a workforce very corruptible. Dock workers had to experience that they could not find work, for example if they were not prepared to pay the hiring foreman part of their salary as a bribe, if they were not members of a certain union or were of the wrong skin color. In Hamburg, the recruitment of workers often took place in harbor bars. The chance of employment was therefore dependent on consumption and on the personal relationship with hosts and agents. Shipowners and merchants no longer selected the workers required in the port themselves, but instead commissioned intermediate contractors, the so-called Baase, and their foremen, known as Vizen. Pressure from trade unions but also from government agencies changed the hiring practice somewhat in many regions of the world in the first half of the 20th century.

Unemployed dock workers on call at the road employment agency at Baumall, Hamburg, 1931

In the Port of Hamburg, after the port workers ' strike in Hamburg in 1896/97 , entrepreneurs drew the conclusion to offer permanent jobs in order to secure a higher level of loyalty among the workers and to strengthen the workers' identification with the activity and the company. At least, however, they wanted to have a workforce who shied away from a strike for longer, because losing a permanent job posed a significantly higher risk than losing a day job. The pioneers of this development were the coal importers and HAPAG, as well as the port companies from 1906, which merged to form the port management association and who managed to bring almost the entire job placement in the port under their control with their proof of work. Before the First World War, this proof of work became a bastion of entrepreneurial power in the port operations and the largest job placement system in Germany. On the US Pacific coast, after a long and bitter strike in 1934, employers lost their right to choose their dockers themselves. After that, the order in which the available dockworkers were hired was drawn every morning by a public drawing of the badge numbers. There were similar developments after the end of the Second World War in Great Britain, New Zealand, France and Australia, where government agencies took over the placement of workers. In Rotterdam, bitter strikes by dock workers in 1945 and 1946 meant that employers increasingly began to hire the required dock workers on a permanent basis. In 1952, half of the port workers in this port were only working for one company.

Social aspects

The labor-intensive way of loading also meant that until well into the 20th century there were quarters near the port in all major port cities of the world whose population was dominated by households that earned their income from such loading work. In Hamburg, one such quarter was the Gängeviertel , which, however, underwent major restructuring in the 20th century as a result of the cholera epidemic of 1892 and the Hamburg dockworkers strike of 1896/1897. There were 51,000 dock workers in New York in 1951 and around 50,000 in London at the same time, all of whom lived near the port. In Manchester after the end of World War II, 54 percent of dock workers lived within a mile of the quays, in south Brooklyn one in six men in work was employed either as dock workers or truck drivers.

Gängeviertel , Hamburg, 1893

The specifics of port work created a very unique culture. Since dock workers seldom worked longer for a single employer, their solidarity was mostly with their colleagues. For a long time, the irregular income and sometimes precarious social situation was typical of dock workers. In London, stevedores were not entitled to a pension until 1960. That is why men over 70 years of age who were hoping for a job that was not too physically demanding appeared regularly at the hiring agencies. However, hourly wages were usually higher than what other workers in their respective region earned per hour. The history of dock workers is therefore characterized by strikes and disputes aimed at improving their working conditions, especially from the second half of the 19th century until well into the 20th century.

Being a dock worker was often a family tradition. In Antwerp, 58 percent of dockworkers had fathers who had already worked in this profession. In Manchester this was the case with three-quarters of the workers, and of the remainder many were married to daughters of dock workers. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan , who faced another dockers strike in 1962, quipped:

“Dock workers have always been difficult people, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews. As in the House of Lords , this is hereditary and intelligence is not a requirement. "

In fact, the reputation of port workers was very bad. In a British survey from 1950, in which respondents were asked to rate 30 different professions based on their reputation, dock workers came in 29th place. Only street sweepers enjoyed a worse reputation.

Outsiders were not welcome in the world of dockworkers. In London and Liverpool it was mostly Irish who found work in the port, while non-white immigrants were marginalized. In the southern United States, three quarters of all dock workers were black, but white and black dock workers belonged to different unions and mostly unloaded different ships.


  • Michael Abendroth among others: port work. An industrial sociological study of the working and operating conditions in the ports of Bremen. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-593-32492-X .
  • Hans-Joachim Bieber : The strike of the Hamburg port workers 1896/97 and the attitude of the Senate. In: Journal of the Association for Hamburg History. Vol. 64 (1978), pp. 91-148. (Digitized version)
  • Hans-Joachim Bieber: The Hamburg port workers strike 1896/97. Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung, Hamburg 1987 (reprint from Arno Herzig , Dieter Langewiesche , Arnold Sywottek (ed.): Arbeiter in Hamburg. Lower classes, workers and the labor movement since the end of the 18th century. Verlag Erziehungs u. Wissenschaft, Hamburg 1983, ISBN 3 -8103-0807-2 ).
  • Michael Grüttner : The world of work at the water's edge. Social history of the Hamburg port workers 1886–1914. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1984, ISBN 3-525-35722-2 .
  • Horst Jürgen Helle : The intermittently employed dock workers in the north-west European ports. G. Fischer, Stuttgart 1960.
  • Marc Levinson: The Box - How the Shipping Container made the world smaller and the economy bigger . Princeton University Press, Princeton 2006, ISBN 0-691-13640-8 .
  • Ferdinand Tönnies : Dock workers and seamen in Hamburg before the strike in 1896/97. In: Archives for Social Legislation and Statistics. Vol. 10, H. 2, 1897, pp. 173-238.
  • Ferdinand Tönnies: The Baltic ports of Flensburg, Kiel, Lübeck. In: The situation of workers employed in seafaring. Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1903, pp. 509-614.
  • Klaus Weinhauer : Everyday Life and Labor Disputes in the Port of Hamburg 1914–1933. Schöningh, Paderborn 1994, ISBN 3-506-77489-1 .
  • Rolf Geffken : Labor and industrial action in the port: On the history of port work and the port workers' union. Edition Falkenberg 2015, ISBN 978-3-95494-053-0

Web links / sources

Wiktionary: Dock workers  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Single receipts

  1. a b c d e Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 16
  2. The mentioned professional groups compare Grüttner, workplace , pp 60-79.
  3. ^ Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 17
  4. ^ Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 18
  5. ^ A b Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 21
  6. ^ A b c Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 22
  7. Michael Grüttner : The world of work at the water's edge. Social history of the Hamburg port workers 1886–1914 (= critical studies of historical science . Volume 63). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht , Göttingen 1984, ISBN 3-525-35722-2 , p. 36.
  8. Michael Grüttner: The world of work at the water's edge. Social history of the Hamburg port workers 1886–1914 (= critical studies of historical science. Vol . 63). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht , Göttingen 1984, ISBN 3-525-35722-2 , p. 36 and p. 38-42.
  9. On the development towards permanent jobs, see Grüttner, Hafenarbeiterstreik , p. 157, Grüttner, Arbeitswelt , pp. 179–183 and Bieber, Hafenarbeiterstreik , p. 17.
  10. ^ A b Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 23
  11. ^ Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 24
  12. ^ Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 26. The original quote is: [T] he Dockers are such difficult people, just the fathers and the sons, the uncles and the nephewss. So like the House of Lords, hereditary and no intelligence required.
  13. ^ A b Levinson: The Box . 2006, p. 25