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.

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