If you were around in New Orleans in the 1970s, the vibrant port city was teeming with longshoreman offloading and uploading cargo on the docks, and when on leave, drinking in the Decatur Street riverside bars.
Where have all the longshoreman gone, you may wonder, as you look around today and see very few signs of a once-thriving industry.
They are still around but far fewer of them today. Automation has taken the cargo-handling jobs from many of the 8,000 longshoremen who plied their trade in the city decades ago. Their plight is neither new nor unique, as automation has cut costs and eliminated jobs in many labor-intensive industries during the late 20th century.
Where once brawny men slung cotton bales into ships’ hulls, today machinery is responsible for uploading and offloading everything from armored vehicles to rubber products.
With goods no longer packaged to be manhandled in bales, sacks or barrels, the longshoreman industry underwent a sea change in the world of commerce. Jobs were still there, if not as plentiful as before but now required more technical expertise than brute strength.
Longshoreman jobs were always dangerous, with shifting loads posing dangers to the men handling the heavy cargo. Labor unions offered benefits and protections since the latter part of the 19th century.
Since 1935, the International Longshoremen Association (ILA) established segregated groups — Local 1418 for white laborers on the docks and Local 1919 for those longshoremen of color. But regardless of skin color, men of both races could expect to work hard and earn a decent living on the river.
But now, instead of lines of dockworkers queuing up daily at the foot of Canal Street, there now is Harrah’s Casino. The more than 150 shipping companies that once operated 60 or so years ago at that site shuttered their doors long ago.
Now, the industry is dominated by steel shipping containers built to withstand the rigors of the high seas. Instead of manpower unloading and loading these ships, the work is managed by crane operators and smaller crews of skilled loaders for a fraction of the cost.
But make no mistake — this is still a dangerous industry despite all the mechanization. If you were injured working on the Mississippi River, you can file a claim to recoup your losses and damages.