How to Become a Longshoreman?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen
A longshoreman might be tasked with operating cranes that offload cargo from a container ship.
A longshoreman might be tasked with operating cranes that offload cargo from a container ship.

The two main steps to become a longshoreman are to get a dockworker's card and then work your way up through the local union. In the United States and Canada, longshoremen belong to organizations such as the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). After you have obtained the necessary credentials to work on a dock, you can start working as a longshoreman. You will typically begin as an "unidentified casual," which means that you will be the last one to receive work on any given day.

Longshoremen load and unload cargo from ships.
Longshoremen load and unload cargo from ships.

If you want to become a longshoreman, the first step is to obtain the necessary credentials to work on a dock. This can be referred to as a dockworker's card, though in the United States the technical term is Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC™). The TWIC™ is a common credential that is used by anyone who needs to have access to secure Marine Security Transportation Act (MTSA) areas, such as those found in ports. To obtain this credential, you will need to provide documents that prove your identity and have both your fingerprints and picture taken.

Longshoremen are fingerprinted during the Transportation Worker Identification Credential process.
Longshoremen are fingerprinted during the Transportation Worker Identification Credential process.

After you have obtained your TWIC™, you may look for work as a longshoreman. The first step in this process is typically to contact your local chapter of the ILWU, ILA, or other applicable union. They will be able to provide you with the specific procedure for "unidentified casuals" as well as any other specific information that you may need to know. They may require that you go through an application process and pass various written or practical tests. Since it can be very difficult to get shifts at that stage, you may want to look for temporary work in construction or another related field while you are trying to become a longshoreman.

Longshoremen typically work their way up through a union.
Longshoremen typically work their way up through a union.

Whether or not you get any work as an "unidentified casual" can depend on your location, the economy, and a variety of different factors. If there is a lot of shipping in your area, there is a better chance of there being enough work to go around. After you have logged enough shifts at that stage, you may be invited to become an "identified casual." This is the next step to become a longshoreman, since you will be somewhat more likely to obtain work each day.

The next step to become a longshoreman comes after you have worked a sufficient number of hours as an "identified casual." At that point you might be invited to join the ILWU, though you will not be a dues paying member of the local chapter. You are much more likely to be offered a shift on any given day as a "class B" member, though it is not until you become a "class A" member of the local union that you are more or less assured to get work when it is available.

What Is a Longshoreman?

A longshoreman is a person who works in commercial docks, ports, and harbors. Dockers use heavy machinery and robots to lift cargo on and off ships for processing and shipping elsewhere. Typically, longshoremen work in either incoming or outgoing sections of shipping and processing. The job involves hard work, heavy machinery, high risk, and working docks during all different seasons of the year.

Incoming

Incoming cargo arrives via ship or transport. Dockers will use loading equipment, such as forklifts, bobcats, and cranes, to move cargo onto a holding platform until it is processed. Once it is processed, the outgoing team of longshoremen takes over for their portion of the job.

Outgoing

Outgoing cargo arrives via ship and is processed and then loaded onto trains, other ships, or trucks to be delivered elsewhere. The longshoremen working in the outgoing processing department often have to use extreme skill to fit cargo shipments onto vehicles that are not as equipped as cargo ships to carry such heavy loads.

How Much Do Longshoreman Make?

Thanks to some very expertly negotiated union agreements; many longshoremen make upwards of $100,000 a year with benefits. The dockworker’s union-negotiated pay based on hazard and necessity and set an annual salary that reflected the job duties and risks. However, private companies can cap pay at around $60,000, depending on the area and the job description. Be careful to only sign up for a longshoreman position that is union-protected.

How To Become a Longshoreman?

There are three tiers to becoming a steady working, union dues-paying longshoreman. While making it from the end of the line to a place where you can expect consistent work may not be a fast route, it is predictable.

The Unidentified Casual

The best course of action to bounce a longshoreman has two parts in the union-controlled areas where longshoremen get paid the most for their hard labor and skills. First, you get a dockworker’s card, and then, you work your way up through the local union. Each day, work will be issued in a lottery format, with those with seniority receiving jobs first. When you begin your job as a longshoreman, you will start as an unidentified casual. That just means that you will be the last in line to receive work as it is doled out.

As you wait for a more secure status in the union, you will likely want to pick up construction work or other paying labor while waiting for the next tier of your union status. Longshoreman work is dependable and profitable, but you have to be patient to get there.

Class B Members

When you move up to a class B member, you will be invited to join the regular union meetings and pay dues. As you participate in more activities, it will earn you higher standing in the union. The more time you invest over the months and years, the higher you will climb ranks. You will also notice that you are no longer the last in line for work offers anymore. Since you became a class B union member, unidentified casuals are now in line behind you.

Class A Members

Class A members of the longshoremen and dockworkers union are full dues-paying members. They regularly receive work and are the first recipients to receive work when it is doled out. Class A members often receive top pay based on experience and skillsets. Class A members may have had additional job training in conjunction with years of on-the-job skill honing.

What Does a Longshoreman Do?

Typically, a longshoreman is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to dockworking and the loading and unloading of cargo. There are specific general qualifications and specialty job descriptions that set dockers apart from other occupations. Namely, many longshoremen are union-controlled, and their pay and training are often regulated by collective bargaining agreements dependent on the location. Other specific descriptions include:

  • Ensure compliance with the FRA
  • Operate and maintain diesel pushers
  • Perform clean-up activities on docks
  • Fabricate, shape, cut, and finish operation on materials
  • Maintain conveyors
  • Operate and transport cargo in intense heat
  • Preferred training in welding
  • Long hours of work at elevated heights

Average bargaining agreements require at least a high-school diploma or a GED to apply to be a longshoreman. In addition to basic education requirements, welding and machine operation licensure is a standard part of on-the-job continuing education and training. On-the-job education and training are the most celebrated parts of the collective bargaining agreement for longshoremen in addition to stabilized pay tiered work.

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Discussion Comments

anon990583

A longshoreman does not travel on the ships; rather, they unload and load the ships at port.

Grinderry
@Realited: I am almost certain this doesn’t apply to military personnel. They're in a class separate from civilians.
Contentum

It sounds like a lot of hard work getting to the longshoreman level. You have to wonder if the pay is decent enough or if its sub-par. I would assume sometimes its not about the money but that there's a real love for the seas and being on a ship that some people overlook the money.

Realited
I'm sure there's some form of certification or identification they have to have aside from just their driver's or boat license. I'm not sure though, if this applies to the men and women in the military. Probably not as their U.S. military ID usually is enough.
Contentum
I'm curious -- does this apply to those fishermen who work in the northern states like Maine and New Hampshire? The ones who fish for crab and lobster as well?
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    • A longshoreman might be tasked with operating cranes that offload cargo from a container ship.
      By: gwen0
      A longshoreman might be tasked with operating cranes that offload cargo from a container ship.
    • Longshoremen load and unload cargo from ships.
      By: Aleksey Stemmer
      Longshoremen load and unload cargo from ships.
    • Longshoremen are fingerprinted during the Transportation Worker Identification Credential process.
      By: Marina Krasnovid
      Longshoremen are fingerprinted during the Transportation Worker Identification Credential process.
    • Longshoremen typically work their way up through a union.
      By: potowizard
      Longshoremen typically work their way up through a union.