Digging up quotable quotes about the workers who load and unload vessels — stevedores, dockers or longshoremen — can be a real challenge. Try hard as I did, I managed to find online a mere handful which I thought would be worth sharing.

I should have expected this to be the case. Far fewer books and articles have been written about waterfront workers than about seafarers. Poems on the subject, at least those written in English, are as rare as the Casper Octopus. Doesn’t this speak volumes?

The longshoreman has not had the sympathy of his employer or of the public. Yet as man, as citizen, and as an important link in the chain of national prosperity, he deserves intelligent consideration. His personal worth, his numerical importance, and his economic significance call for recognition.

— Charles B. Barnes, The Longshoremen (1915)

Beginning in 1945 and for almost thirty years thereafter, the Port of New York was the site of intense class conflict. Striking longshoremen frequently battled the shipping companies, the police, federal and state political authorities, and their own union leadership simultaneously. Through a series of strikes and protests, New York’s dockworkers made their presence felt, paralyzing the transportation of goods, both domestically and abroad, and imposing the financial loss of billions of dollars in U.S. business. At the center of this conflict was the struggle for workplace control — a battle that continually fanned the flames of rebellion on the docks.

— Excerpt from the Introduction to New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks by William J. Mellow (2010)

There’s one thing we’ve got in this country and that’s ways of fightin’ back. Gettin’ the facts to the public. Testifyin’ for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now can’t you see that? Can’t you see that?

— Father Barry in the film On the Waterfront (1954)

The most important word in the language of the working class is “solidarity”.

— Harry Bridges, quoted in From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement by Fred Glass (2016)

Solidarity, 1932
Kathe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

On a rare occasion I’ll get a person whose relative is a longshoreman. Without fail they then say something like, “You make pretty good money don’t you.” And we do make good money and have generous benefits, but that is offset by dangerous work conditions and at times long hours or infrequent work opportunities. If you’re making lots of money as a longshoreman you probably have been doing it for 20 plus years, are living on the docks, taking 7 or 8 shifts a week, and working both days and nights. We have a saying in this industry, “Only the strong survive.”

— The Lazy Longshoreman, “So… What Do You Do?” (9 February 2011), Life On The Docks

We are the army stevedores, lusty and virile and strong,
We are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long.
We handle the heavy boxes, and shovel the dirty coal;
While soldiers and sailors work in the light, we burrow below like a mole.
But somebody has to do this work, or the soldiers could not fight!
And whatever work is given a man, is good if he does it right.

— Ella Wheeler Wilcox, from “The Stevedores” (poem for US Army stevedores, World War I)

For me the Koenigsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life on the whole seemed to me pedantic.

— Käthe Kollwitz, “In Retrospect” (1941)

I saw a magnificent and very strange effect this evening. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhône, moored at the quay. Seen from above it was all glistening and wet from a shower; the water was a white yellow and clouded pearl-grey, the sky lilac and an orange strip in the west, the town violet. On the boat, small workmen, blue and dirty white, were coming and going, carrying the cargo ashore. It was pure Hokusai. It was too late to do it, but one day, when this coal-boat comes back,

— Vincent van Gogh, from letter to Theo van Gogh (Arles, Tuesday, 31 July 1888)

The Longshoremen’s Noon, 1879
John George Brown (American, 1831—1913)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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