These three, inter-related stories describe the lives of three generations of the McGowan family and their personal battles to make a living by working on the Boston waterfront. The common thread that runs through them is the challenges presented by the shape-up or pick-up system, a procedure that was archaic and rife with favoritism and was the sole determining factor whether you received a salary that day.
At a young age, Jim McGowan goes to work as a longshoreman not knowing one end of a ship from the other. Fighting alcoholism, bad companions and family hardship, he strives to make a decent living for his family.
Jim's uncle Owen is an immigrant from Ireland in 1920 who finds work on the docks, one of the few jobs available to him. Working alongside veteran longshoremen, he decides to become part of the political establishment in order to improve the working conditions on the docks. Owen's cousin Mike is a seasoned dock worker, content with his life but wanting something better for his children.
The Longshoremen details the working conditions and challenges of working on the Boston waterfront and is based on the real-life experiences of longshoreman, author Jim Lynch.