Friday, February 26, 2010

The Hiring Club

Although a scene like this was unlikely on the old waterfront (for that matter, it does not even appear anywhere within Ferguson Findley's 1951 book), dockworkers knew very real dangers--both from physical hazards of the job, where slingloads weighed as much as 4000 pounds--and from the racketeers who had infiltrated their longshore union and demanded daily tribute. The violence and dangers at the edges of the longshoremen's experience were rendered as implausible melodrama in books like Waterfront, which, after the scandals raised in the Kefauver hearings, was made into The Mob (with a young Ernie Borgnine as a union thug).

"In New York," the cop-narrator of Waterfront correctly explains, "longshoremen report to certain piers twice a day, once at five minutes to eight and then, if they didn't get a job the first time, at five minutes to one. That's what's known as the 'shape-up.' It has been called a vicious system. Maybe five hundred men report for a job that needs no more than a hundred. Who gets picked? If the waterfront is full of racketeers, and if the hiring foreman is in with them, then the longshoremen who work are all too often the ones who kick back part of their pay."

This photograph, of a morning "shape-up" (this one held at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers), comes from Charles Barnes' classic 1915 study, The Longshoremen (Russell Sage Foundation). The "shape" of course was made infamous by later investigators such as the Sun''s Mike Johnson, who called the ritual an "archaic and degrading hoax" that kept the men under-employed and powerless. But Barnes (observing the waterfront, where "Picturesqueness and magnitude unite in the handling of cargoes") was the first to record and present the daily spectacle in depth: Who were these men? Where did they come from and how dangerous were the jobs they competed for day after day? By the mid-fifties, decades after the shape was shelved by more enlightened ports like Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, New York finally abandoned the practice. It finally succumbed, despite the longtime collusion of ILA President Joseph P. Ryan and the New York Shipping Association on its behalf, under the weight of wildcat strikes by the rank-and-file membership, crime commission reports, and a crusading Hollywood movie whose hero turns against the racketeers.

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