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Who are Longshoremen? What do they do? Your Questions Answered

"What do you do as a longshoreman?" is a question I get asked at least once a week. I get asked it so much I figured I would write about longies do, including a job description.

In this post I go into detail about what longshoreman do, but if you are looking for a short answer, longshoremen facilitate the transportation of cargo that comes from ships. Disclosure: I am a Casual Longshoreman that works at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. I am (kind of) a member of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13. My job description is based on this context -- other ports may vary in experiences and so on.

(2015 Update: This post was written in 2013. Since writing this post, I've put the docks behind me. Why? Too much uncertainty about the future of the ports, and too much stagnation after working for 7 years on the docks as casual. Anyway, that's just my personal take on it. Read on to get your answers about longshoremen.)

Who are Longshoremen?

Most longshore workers live near the port area. I once worked at the busiest ports in America (Los Angeles and Long Beach). Most of the workers live in the South Bay or within a reasonable distance. Some live as far as San Diego and drive up when they can. This isn't too common however.

Family and friends used to be the only way to be a longshoreman. In the late 1990's that changed. When it was time to hire on the docks, 3,000 people were hired via family/friends and 15,000 were hired via a lottery system. Once hired, longshoreman have to do some test -- agility, basic math, drug, and driving. Pass those and you're in.

Being hired is one thing, actually working is another. 10 years later the last batch of these 18,000 are barely working their first day.  

What do Longshoremen do?

The ports are a 24/7 operation, so Longshoreman are doing what they do around the clock. Longshoreman move cargo by crane, UTR, top handler, railroad, heavy lift, hand, and several other ways I probably have yet to see. When ships dock at the port they go through a variety of procedures before they are ready to be unloaded and loaded. 

Aside from the basic labor-related working gear, like hard hats or safety vests, there are some longshoremen-specific types of equipment and machines.

Here are some of these machines.

Cranes

Here are some cranes. Lots of them.

Here are some cranes. Lots of them.

Cranes are the main way of moving cargo from a ship. If you have been around a port, you've seen these giant steel machines towering over the landscape. Cranes move side by side on a rail system to accommodate ship size. Despite their size, only one person is needed to operate a crane.

By the way, it's rumored that these cranes were the inspiration of the walkers first-seen in The Empire Strikes Back. Spielberg did attend California State University Long Beach, after all. 

What do you think, is there or isn't there a similarity between shipping cranes and walkers?

Let me know in the comments.

Ships

Some ships only need 1 or 2 cranes while some need 8. The biggest ship at the time of this writing is Maersk Line's Triple-E. Below is a video of it being built to let you imagine the size and scale of these massive structures.

Ships generally take 3-4 continuous days to finish. Most ships come from the East (i.e., China, Japan, etc.) and take 14 days to reach west coast ports. Although Longshoremen work with ships, we only do so when they are docked. The people aboard the ship are on standby while the longshoreman unload/load it.

KCRW did a fantastic piece on ships. Check it out here for more information about shipping and the longshore industry.

Containers

shipping cans

Containers (or cans for short) are those boxes you see on the backs of trucks driving on the road. The standard size is 40' but there are 20', 45', and 53' sized cans too. 

a reefer

There are other specialized types of containers. One of them is called a reefer. A reefer is a container that is meant to keep its insides cold. Reefers are used for things like produce (fruit, veges, etc.) or standing next to on a hot day.

UTRS

UTR

Some ports call these scooters or tractors. At the port of LA and LB we refer to them as UTRS. Or simply, trucks. Longshoremen drive these things around the docks in order to move cargo around. Usually we will move containers to and from a ship. 

Gangs

Gangs are what we call the groups assigned to work a ship. When a ship is docked a port, a certain number of gangs are required to finish it. For example, it might be said that, "3 gangs are needed on dayside tomorrow to finish." Gangs are made up of the following.

Dock Aloft (DA)

The DA (or signal), is assigned to a piece of machinery and provides a line of communication for the operator. Using two-way radios, like the ones seen in the nearby pic, the DA is the eyes and ears for places where the operator can't see. The DA also stays in communication with the boss. Basically the DA is a safety person and will use a variety of hand signals along with radio-language (e.g., "10-4" or "all clear") to keep things moving smoothly.

Swingman

Swingmen are the hands on personal. While the DA is signalling and using a radio, the swingmen are handling anything that needs to be done by hand. This means they are taking on and off pins (locking mechanisms for the cans) or working on the ship as lashers (lashing is explained below). 

Bosses

Being a boss means you are the big dog of an operation. There are different bosses for different aspects of cargo movement. A hatch boss will be on the ship and make sure all the cans are coming off in the right order. A dock boss will be on the ground level keeping things running smoothly by making sure all the trucks are going to the right locations around the yard.

Clerks

Clerks are the "pencil pushers" of the port. They have the manifests and keep track of the can numbers.

Lashers

Lashing is what we call tieing the containers together with metal bars. When a ship is lashed, it is all tied up. Imagine the shoelaces on a shoe. The same concept applies to a ship, except the laces are made of metal bars with locks. Lashing/unlashing a ship is necessary because without the bars the containers would fall into the ocean. 

I added a video. The lashing explanation starts at 0:30. 

Porters

Porters work with the cruise ships. They assist passengers with their luggage and make sure it's loaded on and off the ship in a timely manner.

How and when do Longshoreman work?

This is another question that cannot be described simply. Depending on where you are on the totem pole, you get your job different. I'll break it down into two major categories: regulars and casuals.

Regulars

Regulars consist of bosses, clerks, and every other job at the port. Regulars get their job by going a dispatch hall (we call it the "big hall"). Regulars get to choose when (what shift) and where (what ship/yard) they want to work. As you can see, one of the great things about being a regular is you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and where you want to work.

Regulars have different job boards based on their specialty. You can, for example, be a regular that only drives UTRs. Or, once you've been an established regular, drive cranes.

Casuals

Casual Longshoremen are "temporary" workers. The regulars get dispatched to work first. Whatever is left after they get their jobs gets sent to the casual hall (it's not actually a hall...it's a parking lot).  

Casuals never know exactly when they'll work. Every week is different. They can, however, make some estimations by calling a tapeline and checking the job count for the forthcoming shift.  

The way I describe how casuals get work is to imagine being a casual as being a part of one giant rotating line - kind of like how luggage works at the airport. When it's your time to get picked, you have to be there. If you're not, you have to wait until the line gets back to you. For the past 6 years (as of 2013), I've always had the same position in the line. 

Why Longshoreman are important

The organized manner in which Longshoreman operate is nothing like I've ever seen. Through an efficient line of steady communication, 1000's of containers are moved throughout the shipyards for almost the full 24 hours of a day and the 7 days of a week (unless there is a strike or a port closure in the ports of LA and LB, in which case it is estimated $1,000,000,000 a day loss).

Raymond Duke