The Human Stories of Dock Labor - Part 1

May 08, 2020 Posted by: Peter Kasin

This is the first blog in a series called "The Human Stories of Dock Labor." We will look at United States dock labor history through books that are in the park's Maritime Research Center collection. What is in the collection may be viewed by going to the Park's online Keys Catalog. Feel free to continue discussion and post questions in the comments section.

The first book we'll look at is 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 (you can read it online by following the link). This was published in 1955, coincidentally in the same year that the movie On the Waterfront was released, which accurately portrayed a "shape-up" and other labor issues written about in this book. In this first blog, we'll discuss the first half of the book, about the shape-up on New York's Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts.

What was a "shape-up"? It was a method of hiring longshoremen, now outlawed and replaced by union hiring halls. Imagine you are seeking longshore work, the job of loading or unloading ships' cargo in the years before containerization revolutionized the way cargo is handled. You arrive at the dock anywhere from 4am to 7am, along with up to a hundred other men seeking 30 to 50 job openings for that morning. The hiring boss, either a representative of a stevedoring firm, hired by the shipping firm to in turn hire longshoremen, or a representative of the union, often mob-run or a company "union," chooses who he wants to work. He demands a kickback from you, either in a percentage of your already low wages, or with a bribe, such as a jug of wine, or both. If you had any independent union sympathies, or were branded a "red," or were otherwise looked on as a "troublemaker" you would not be chosen. If the hiring boss knew that you would willingly submit to the system of kickbacks, you would be favored. 

How did the hiring boss know that you would be counted on to be loyal to this system? On the New York and New Jersey waterfronts, with their mob-controlled hiring, you would have a secret signal for him, such as wearing a toothpick behind the ear.

One way to be favored was through a "hiring club," another form of extortion. Larrowe quotes a longshoreman's description:

"I once belonged to a club. I had to give the club a dollar a week. The club operated from an apartment where some sharp operators had a phone. Some clubs worked out of a saloon or store front. Well, anyhow, we would get to the club by 6 a.m. By that time the fellow who ran it had been tipped off by some boss-friend of his. He knew where there was work. Then he shaped us in the street. He made up gangs and sent us to a pier for work. There you pretend to shape-up again and the other fellows waiting there think they have a chance but they don't. They just wasted their time and carfare. The boss calls for your gang and you go out. Then at the end of the week the boss splits the fees with the fella that runs the club."

Not hired? You would be out of luck, and whatever money you had, you would often go to a local bar and grill and wait for the noontime shape-up to try again. This degrading, corrupt and haphazard system of hiring casual labor ruled the waterfronts for decades. 

Who benefitted from the Shape-up? 

  1. Employers, as there was always a surplus of cheap labor.
  2. ILA union officials, often mobsters who took kickbacks.
  3. The community at large, as the union (the International longshoremen's Association) in collusion with mobsters, shipping companies and some elected officials kept any strikes from happening, thus keeping cargo moving and the economy humming without stoppages. Most residents were unaware of the priced paid: the corruption, violence, and near-starvation wages longshoremen endured. 

If you are looking for a scholarly, dispassionate account of the shape-up, this book will give you that, and a firm foundation for further reading. In many books and in later blogs, the shape-up will come up again, and we will look at reformers who worked to end this system.

In the next blog, we'll look at the second half of this book; the hiring hall on the Seattle waterfront, the antithesis of the shape-up. 

The image at the top (from the Library of Congress, photo #LC-USZ62-124238) is titled "Shapeup at Pier 92, N.Y.C., North River and 52nd St."


laborhistory, docklabor, longshoremen, transportation, commerce, shipping, bookreview

Last updated: May 8, 2020

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