Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Nose

The man happily washing up in this picture is the West Coast longshore leader Harry Bridges, often called The Nose, and more often called a communist--especially by the United States government, which tried several times to deport him. The rivalry of Bridges (and his ILWU) and the ILA's President Joe Ryan, beholden as he was to the East Coast racketeers who’d infiltrated his union, produced a longshoremen's dilemma that one historian characterized as "Reds Vs. Rackets."

Bridges, an Australian who'd gone to sea inspired by the boys' adventure stories of Jack London, had risen as a West Coast representative in Joe Ryan’s longshore union but broke with Ryan over his handling of the 1934 Great Strike in San Francisco. He founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and became ever after a focus of the FBI's attention. By the 1940s, he had grown quite skilled at eluding g-men, as he gleefully explained for The New Yorker's crime writer St. Clair McKelway, who had an affinity for scoundrels and characters, especially if they were good storytellers. Their conversation (really a long Bridges monologue in the Hotel Picadilly) is included in a superb new collection of McKelway’s journalism, Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker (Bloomsbury Pr.):

“The F.B.I. men like to occupy the room next to yours in a hotel, if possible. If they can arrange this in advance, as they probably can, you’ll probably be assigned by the management to a room that has a room next to it with a locked door between it and yours. This locked door invariably has a space under it…usually they have your telephone rigged in such a way that their receiving instruments pick up not only what you say into your telephone but also what you say anywhere in your room. So you look under this connecting door yourself, and you listen. If you see two pairs of men’s feet moving around the room and hear no talking except in whispers, you can be fairly certain the room is occupied by F.B.I. men, or at least by men who are not acting like ordinary men in a hotel.” In addition to pranking the F.B.I. on his tapped phone, Bridges had become pretty practiced at spotting agents whenever he ventured out of his room: “I’ve seen so many F.B.I. men these past years that there are likely to be one or two I’ve seen before in the lobby of practically any hotel I am staying at. But if I don’t happen to see any F.B.I. men I know, I watch out for men holding newspapers in front of them in a certain peculiar sort of manner. They hold the paper so that it just comes to the bottoms of their eyes, and their eyes are always peering over the top of the paper.”

Bridges, the man Joe Ryan may have hated more than any other, can’t have been J.Edgar Hoover’s favorite person, either.

Monday, March 15, 2010


(From "Longshoremen and Their Homes," NYU lib. collection)

In August 1939, a month after the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto stepped into a car and was never seen alive again, a work of patient advocacy appeared whose goals he would have mightily endorsed. "Longshoremen and Their Homes" was a project of the Public Housing movement, the then relatively recent idea that the working poor deserved a decent place in which to live, and that this should be the concern of the federal government. (It's interesting to read this hopeful document at a time when an ambitious scheme to develop the city's biggest New Deal-era Public Housing complex into condos was undermined by the 2008 crash.)

Greenwich Village, and the area around Sheridan and Washington Squares, was a far more desperate place during the spring of 1939, when researchers at Greenwich House completed this case study of 278 longshoremen living near the lower West Side waterfront. The research group’s Barrow Street ‘settlement,’ explains the foreword, was “situated…in a neighborhood blighted by some of New York City’s worst slums,” so they took it upon themselves to do something.

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

The report profiles local dock workers raising families—what they earn, where they live, with the uncertainty of daily employment under the cattle-call hiring system:

"[B]etween the longshoreman and the job he is so eager to get stands another character, not to be confused with the longshoreman--the stevedore. Promptly at five minutes to eight the stevedore (or his foreman) strides out from a pier office to the great entrance doors, blowing a whistle. The huddle of expectant men shifts, takes on the shape of a horse-shoe, three and four men deep, facing the doors. Then the stevedore begins to shout, "Number three! Number seven! Number ten!' and so on. As he calls each number a group of twenty men breaks away from the horse-shoe and shuffles off on to the pier."

Beyond this, those who were regularly hired had to contend with the "speed-up," the inevitable (and dangerous) result of "two irreconcilable points of view" as the longshoremen were paid by the hour and the stevedore was paid by ton of cargo moved. "The amount of money the stevedore gets is fixed, and the more hours he has to pay his helpers, the smaller grows his margin....No wonder he is constantly pushing his men."

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

When buildings like the ones pictured above eventually appeared in waterfront communities in Chelsea and Red Hook, the men who lived in these public housing complexes were better off than those profiled in the Greenwich House report. But it did not alter their relation to their union, whose corruption was unchanged by housing improvements. "Where does the graft come in?" wonders the Greenwich House report, before admitting, "It is difficult to discover the full extent of this kickback racket on the waterfront since it necessarily goes on under cover. Even those who suffer under it--the rank and file longshoremen--are afraid to make revelations since to do so may cost them their jobs."

Although the shape-up system is long abandoned, and the city itself has changed enormously since the thirties, many of the complaints listed in the Greenwich House report about waterfront work have persisted. The West Side dock workers told their interviewers that "Modern homes and pleasant parks and playgrounds would put an end to a lot of the crap-shooting and necking that go on in the dark doorways of the boarded-up tenements in dockland. And they think, too, that the gangsterism which flourishes there would lose much of its allure if the young people were given opportunities for sane recreation." 'Sane recreation' (in the form of bike paths and tennis courts) is exactly what has replaced the West Side's abandoned dockland. But elsewhere around the harbor (and around the country's ports) rank-and-file groups ( are still trying to reform their wayward union, and, remarkably, still having to fight many of the same old battles.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Waterfront Cop

Bill O’Dwyer was already a former seminary student when he arrived in America from Ireland in 1910, and he would become a Brooklyn cop with a waterfront beat by the time his new country entered the Great War. This portrait from the New York Police Museum shows young O’Dwyer in his patrolman days, when he encountered the fierce but small-time gangs of that era before Prohibition would make real organized crime possible. Two decades after this picture O'Dwyer was Brooklyn District Attorney when a high-level gangster named Abe "Kid Twist" Reles came to his offices under escort. Reles described the outlines of a secretive national organization called the Combination. With Reles's testimony, O’Dwyer sent seven Combination leaders to death row, most notably, Louis Lepke Buchalter. (Newspapermen called the newly discovered organization 'Murder Inc.') Mysteriously, O'Dwyer never even arrested Albert Anastasia, a Brooklyn waterfront racketeer and Lepke's coordinator for most Combination murders (including the strangling death of dock leader Peter Panto in 1939). When his famous turncoat witness, Abe Reles, plunged to his death from Coney Island's Half Moon hotel in 1941, any case against Anastasia also “went out the window,” O’Dwyer insisted down the years.

Despite the Anastasia omission, O'Dwyer's Murder Inc. prosecutions would make him Mayor of New York in 1945. But it was Mayor O'Dwyer, the ex-waterfront cop, who presided during the scandals caused by Mike Johnson's Pulitzer-prize winning series, "Crime on the Waterfront," which ran in the New York Sun in 1948-49. His failure to prosecute Anastasia while Brooklyn D.A. as well as a wartime visit he'd had with the Mafia leader and Tammany liaison Frank Costello would haunt O’Dwyer's political career, most dramatically on national television in 1951, when he appeared before the Kefauver commission crime hearings in New York.

photo/Dave Attie

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Outlaw Frontier

Sixty years ago, the New York Sun's Malcolm "Mike" Johnson, a loyal union man himself, published his discoveries about the "labor gangsterism" then plaguing and "perverting" certain unions across the country. Crime on the Labor Front expanded on the work he'd done in a sensational series of articles on the New York waterfront, and in particular on the corruption of its International Longshoremen's Association, which, as run by "lifetime president" Joseph P. Ryan, made good cover for the racketeers who doubled as its officers. "The Port of New York, the greatest in the world, is an outlaw frontier," Johnson warned. As a reporter, he had seen the bloody invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but was nevertheless shocked by the "outlaw" conditions he found surrounding Manhattan island after the war, in April 1948, when the murder of a North River hiring foreman inspired the first of his two hundred stories on waterfront corruption.

Johnson's crime series in the Sun caused a national scandal and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949; the articles were almost immediately optioned by Hollywood (in what would become, many drafts later, the film On the Waterfront). Johnson's book, Crime on the Labor Front, investigating other mobbed-up unions in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago, appeared in time to be waved and quoted by Senator Kefauver at hoodlum witnesses in the senate's 1951 crime hearings. "It is not only common knowledge that gangsters control the docks," Mike Johnson wrote, "but anyone interested can find out exactly which piers are bossed by which criminals." But when Johnson published this "common knowledge" on the Sun's front pages, detailing which gangs controlled which docks, he took his life in his hands.