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There have been stevedoring workers in North America since colonial times. Long ago, when a sailing vessel arrived at the docks of a settlement, criers would go up and down the nearby streets summoning workers with a call like, "Men along the shore!" Stevedores, or longshore workers, came quickly in hopes of a chance to make some extra cash by helping to unload the ship's cargo. Often, these longshore workers lived in town near the port and had other occupations. Ships arrived too infrequently for them to make a living at the docks. But as the volume of shipping increased, a group of workers developed who were always available at the docks for loading and unloading activities.

Ship owners usually wanted to have cargos moved through ports as soon as possible. They preferred to pick temporary workers from a large labor pool at the time there was work to be done. However, this practice produced unfavorable wages, hours, and working conditions for many workers. In the 19th century, longshore workers were among the first groups of American workers to organize labor unions to force improvements in working conditions.

In ancient times, a ship's cargo was handled in single "man-loads." Grain, a common item of cargo, was packed in sacks that could be carried on and off the ship on a man's shoulders. As methods progressed, the ship's rigging was used for hoisting cargo. The first cargo to need a special type of handling was fuel, which used to be transported in barrels. As the volume of fuel increased, barrels became inadequate. Since the late 19th century, oil products have been shipped in bulk, with no packaging, pumped directly into the hull cells of tankers.

Cargo handling has thus depended on the type of cargo shipped. Vehicles are simply rolled on and off; dry bulk like coal and grain is often poured into cargo holds. In the first part of the 20th century, longshore work slowly became mechanized, relying less on human labor and more on machines. Since the 1960s, containerization of cargos has been a major factor in ocean shipping. This method of transporting goods involves putting freight into large sealed boxes of standard sizes, sometimes fitted as truck trailers. The containers, which can be carried on ships that are specially built to hold them, are easily and quickly moved on and off ships at ports, thus keeping the cost of transport well below that for uncontainerized cargo. Such changes have greatly reduced the demand for stevedoring workers to do manual loading and unloading.