Hiring Halls and Company Favouritism on the Waterfront

Published by BC Labour Heritage Centre on

Image courtesy David Yorke.

The International Longshore Association disappeared from the waterfront in BC following their 1923 strike. The union was broken by employers in the Shipping Federation of BC, and a company union was put in place. Favouritism in hiring was rampant. As the economy worsened in the 1930s new militant longshore unions were formed and a key issue for longshore workers was ending company control over hiring.  Below, David Yorke, a collector of BC labour history and associated artifacts recounts the story of the “hated shape-up tags” used before seniority-based hiring was won.

Before the union won hiring halls, the method of hiring was the “shape-up”, where longshore workers gathered on the docks, a company agent would show up, and the workers would vie with each other, trying to get picked by the agent for a day’s work.
Sometimes, when chosen, the agent would give the worker a brass tag to be presented at the ship as proof that he had been selected.
There are stories of agents flinging a handful of tags to a crowd of workers and watch them scramble all over each other in order to grab one, which meant a day’s work.
The shape-up system was rife with favouritism, anti-union hiring, and led some to try to bribe or kick-back to the agents to get jobs. It was one of the west coast union’s big accomplishments to get rid of the shape-up system in favour of seniority-based hiring halls.
Categories: Strikes