The Human Stories of Dock Labor – Part 2: The Shape Up

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park


Hello, this is the second video in the series called "The Human Stories of Dock Labor,” where we'll take a look at the history through books that are in the park's Maritime Research Center. A description of what's in the Center can be viewed by going online to the Keys Catalog. The URL is listed below. In this installment we'll discuss the first half of this book,” Shape-Up and Hiring Hall; A Comparison of Hiring Methods and Labor Relations on the New York and Seattle Water Fronts,” by Charles P. Larrowe. This was written in 1955 shortly after the shape-up was outlawed on the New York and New Jersey waterfronts. So, what was a shape-up? Well, imagine if you were a longshoreman, you were looking for work. Anywhere from 4am to 7am you go down to the dock, and a hiring foreman comes out and blows a whistle, and then everyone "shapes." They go into a semi-circle, and the hiring foreman chooses who he wants. Well, who did he want? Well, if you agree to kickbacks of giving over to him up to 25% of your already low wages, you were chosen. If you were deemed a troublemaker, meaning if you had any union sympathies, if you were deemed a "red" or a "troublemaker" in any other way, you were not chosen. Now, how did the hiring foreman know that you agreed to the kickbacks? Well, here's a toothpick and you can do a little secret signal to him by putting the toothpick behind the ear. That was a typical way he would know. And if you were not chosen you were just out of luck. Now, this shape-up hiring system was done all over the world, but there was an added problem on the New York and New Jersey waterfronts, and that was there was a very large mob influence in the hiring practices and in the waterfront union at the time, which some historians said was a union only in name. That was the ILA, the International Longshoreman's Association. Although the president wasn't himself a mobster, he was known to hire mobsters and be any enabler of mob rule on the waterfront. So this is the kind of degrading system you had to go through. Well, for a longer discussion of the shape-up, feel free to go to the blog on our park's website. There's a series of blogs called "Around the Horn," and that URL is listed below. And feel free to make comments, continue discussion, ask questions in the comments section on the blog and here. Well, thanks for watching. On the next one we'll go over the second half of this book, “The Hiring Hall,” so stay safe everyone.


In the second video in this series, Ranger Kasin discusses a hiring practice called the “Shape Up” as employed on the New York and New Jersey waterfronts. You can look up the books mentioned in these talks at For more info about this segment, check out this post on the Around The Horn blog:


3 minutes, 4 seconds


Peter Kasin

Date Created


Copyright and Usage Info