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On the Waterfront, by Malcolm Johnson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Whole truckloads of cargo disappear from the piers without a trace. Hijackers take their toll from shipments en route to and from the piers. Casual pilferage by individual thieves, awaiting only opportunity, sends the loss totals higher, but this form of theft is negligible compared with the highly organized stealing by the gangs. And here again the key to the business is thorough control of the union labor by the mobsters in power on the piers. They dictate the hiring of union members and see to it that the "right men" get the important jobs. The right men in most instances are members of the mob, usually ex-convicts.
Of all the material I've looked at which was adapted to Oscar-winning movies, this is the most altered in the adaptation. It's not that surprising, really; the original material was a series of factual newspaper articles in the New York Sun in 1947 and 1948 about organised crime and the dock industry. In itself it is interesting enough. It's a classic example of investigative journalism which does not hesitate to name names (though presumably some names are left out); it's not a broad survey of social conditions on the docks, it's a very specific investigation of how the shipping industry was being extorted by the leadership of the International Longshoremen's Union, and the difficulties faced by the authorities in chasing them down. The cost of this extortion was, of course, passed on to the consumer, and the profits went directly to the union leadership, who forced the workers to compete for their small cut of the available labour.

The film of course must tell its own narrative, but I found it striking how little of the wider political context made it to the screen. Johnson's journalism makes it clear how many of the criminal bosses got their start in the days of Prohibition (less distant in 1948 than Bill Clinton's presidency is now), and the extent to which they were able to control local police forces. There is a particularly memorable chapter where leading mobster John Dunn got some mid-ranking army officers to intercede for him with the Parole Commission to insist on his early release from jail in 1943, only for Mayor LaGuardia to alert Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, who put a stop to it. (It's not in Johnson's book, but it came out many years later that Dunn and his mobster colleagues had in fact been paid informants of the Office of Naval Intelligence, which was obviously interested in anything political going on in such a sensitive economic chokepoint.)

I also found it striking that Hoboken, where the film is so memorably set, was not the centre of the main action of the ILA up and down the West Side of Manhattan - though the Jersey side certainly doesn't go unmentioned. From the film you would almost think that the docks were restricted to Hudson County. The book makes it clear what a big deal the docks were (and still are); New York Harbour was then the world's busiest port, seeing about a quarter of all imports into the USA. (Nowadays it's not even in the top 20 worldwide, and beaten by both South Louisiana and Houston in the USA, but there's still a lot going on.)

Anyway, this is all something of a historical curiosity. The power of the ILA was broken in 1953, before the film came out, by the creation of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which has inevitably developed its own problems with corruption; New Jersey is attempting to extricate itself from it (though has not yet succeeded). Father Corridan, the model for Father Barry in the film, gets a lot of the good lines. The actual union members themselves who successfully went on strike against their own leadership don't get quite so much coverage, which is perhaps rather telling.

Anyway, mainly of interest to people who want a microstudy of a particular moment of American crime and labour hitory, or to aspiring film buffs like myself. You can get it here.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
resonant
May. 3rd, 2019 11:49 am (UTC)
"The Box" and other books on containerized shipping note how shocked customers were when they first received shipments where nothing had been stolen.


https://books.google.ca/books?id=vi7FCgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA37&ots=BeDfnv6nWp&dq=the%20box%20stolen%20whisky%20shipping%20container%20longshoreman&pg=PA37#v=onepage&q=whiskey&f=false
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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