On October 1, 1945, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in New York started a wildcat strike against the corrupt and conservative leadership of their union, as well as the terrible working conditions they faced. The wildcat strike would fail, showing the limits of rank-and-file insurgencies against corrupt and violent union leadership.
As a general rule, the ILA gets less attention from historians than its west coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Association (ILWA). That union, started by the Australian radical Harry Bridges in the aftermath of the 1934 dockworkers strike that shook the nation, has a more democratic and politically radical history, which labor historians find appealing since most of them are in the game to promote their own vision of what the labor movement should be. Meanwhile, the ILA is mostly known for corruption and mob ties. That’s for a reason–it was a pretty worthless union at the top. The scenes in On the Waterfront that show union corruption are a story of the ILA. It had a reputation and there was good reason Bridges wanted an alternative organization. But the ILWA never made much in the way of inroads on the east coast.
However, just because the top of a union has problems doesn’t mean those values and culture are shared by the rank and file. Of course, that can work the other way too–a radical union leadership does not mean a radical rank and file. There are often conflicts between leadership and rank and file. Sometimes that’s over a lack of democracy, which labor historians like to highlight. Sometimes that’s because the leadership has a strong civil rights agenda and the rank and file, uh, do not.
The end of World War II saw a massive strike wave that continued through 1946. These strikes generally were not tinted with a lot of radical politics, which is why labor historians have paid less attention to them that the strike waves of 1919 or 1934. They were mostly about workers wanting money. They hadn’t had a lot of money to spend in a very long time. The war brought the nation out of the Great Depression, but government wage and price controls limited what they could buy and how much they made. Moreover, the government was more sympathetic to business than labor during the war over these issues and so workers made money but found their purchasing power reduced. With the no-strike pledge holding most of this anger down during the war, the immediate aftermath of that war saw workers take to the streets to demand what they saw as there’s.
But while most of these strikes were primarily about wages and almost all of them centered wages, some of them did have alternative agendas.
On October 1, 1945, workers loading cargo onto the Daulton Mann in Manhattan stopped working. The immediate reason for the strike was that workers believed the company was increasing the weight of the loads and demanded those loads be reduced to one long ton–2,420 pounds. The company refused and within a few hours workers on other docks around Manhattan joined the strike. This was the day after the contract between the docks and ILA Local 791 had ended. The next day, the ILA, under its dictator (literally, he was president for life) Joseph Ryan, better known as “King Ryan” negotiated a new contract that gave the workers a significant pay hike but did nothing on the weight issue.
The New York workers were furious. Over the protests of their own business agent, the workers chose to continue their strike and it quickly spread to docks in Brooklyn and Hoboken. They developed a set of demands that included the limit on loads, at least four hours of guaranteed pay if they were called to work, time and a half if they had to work through lunch, and a reduction in the infamous shape-up (where workers were picked out by the employers for the day) to no more than twice a week from its current three times.
Ryan confidently said that workers really supported him, but they did not. A sham election that the vast majority of workers boycotted did not help. Soon the strike really became as much against the Ryan dictatorship as against the employers. He spoke to a group of workers, who shouted him down. At this point, the federal government, which wanted the docks opened as quickly as possible, put its thumb on the scale to help Ryan. Fiorello LaGuardia appealed to the largely Italian-American workforce to end the strike so goods could be sent to the relief of Italian families impoverished by the war. Ryan of course claimed it was “communists” leading the strike. This was absurd, but because he hated the ILWU and everyone believed Bridges was a communist, it had some legs. This led the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists to join with Ryan and oppose the strike.
And then Ryan called out the thugs of the Seafarers International Union to beat up his own workers. What actually went down though is the cops were protecting a ILA union meeting so there wouldn’t be violence so the SIU thugs attacked the cops instead. They also beat nearly to death one anti-Ryan striker they found.
This strike could not last. Ryan had such power and he was willing to use it. On October 18, the strike collapsed and worker returned to the job. The next day, William Warren, one of the rank and file activists, showed up and expected he would never be hired again after his role. He was talking to some journalists about this when Ryan’s thugs showed up and beat the living hell out of him and reporters. Ryan then expelled him from the union, meaning he couldn’t work.
Ryan’s tactics may have ended the strike, but workers again overwhelming rejected the new contract that still did nothing about load weight. But over time, a few more wage gains finally broke the resistance down. In the end, a rank and file insurgency was not going to have the power to take down a strongly entrenched union dictator willing to use violence against his own members.
This post borrowed from George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. It’s an excellent book, you should all read it.
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