This was a very labour-intensive process and, often, ships were known to spend most of their productive time in port, waiting to load or discharge. And although seafaring was great fun in these days [sic], the same cannot be said for casual port work which was rather ill-considered and looked down by society.
As a result of the unpredictability of port work, port management could not possibly employ permanent staff, paying them while idle, and waiting for the next ship to arrive. Labour was thus casual, i.e. employed for as long; as much; and whenever required.
Recruitment of dockers was very different too. Each morning, a number of dockers would present themselves to a union foreman, often a mobster, and he, on the basis of certain ‘criteria’ that had more to do with natural selection rather than anything else, would thumb-in the youngest, the strongest, the favorites of the Union, or those prepared to return a kickback to the Union.To indicate this ‘preparedness’, the latter dockers used to put a toothpick behind their right ear. The rest would return to their ‘locales’ [sic] and indulge in whatever it was they were indulging in.
Containerization and the new cargo-handling techniques changed all this by taking work away from the waterfront to inland consolidation areas, or to the backyard of the manufacturer who would stuff/strip the container at his own good time. Port labor was thus reduced by 90%, while at the same time labor productivity increased tenfold. Port management had to make generous concessions to docker unions, including the setting up of 'funds' to compensate port workers for the fewer hours they now had to work as a result of automation. In a number of countries, including the US, such 'funds' exist even today, topped up by carriers, and at rates such as $5/ton of cargo handled.
In spite of the reduction in numbers, port union strength has remained largely unchanged and it is not uncommon, in many western ports, to see 'closed shop' salaries well above 100 thousand dollars per year.