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In Labor Grave News

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As dockworker Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, a young Marlon Brando firmly established himself as a leading Hollywood icon.

I suppose it is my duty to report on the rare times when graves make the news and this one is actually worth mentioning:

“The idea was a very simple one,” Joseph Sciorra said. “To give the man the respect that he deserves.”

The man Sciorra was talking about was Pietro (Pete) Panto, a hero to rank-and-file dockworkers in the 1930s as a labor organizer on Brooklyn’s “waterfront jungle” — to use a phrase from Malcolm Johnson, the New York Sun reporter whose stories led to “On the Waterfront.”

And the idea? For the last couple of years Sciorra, the director for academic and cultural programs at the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, has campaigned for a tombstone for Panto — and the respect it would finally confer on someone killed on orders from the mobsters he had defied, who controlled the city’s docks.

With a ceremony in a Long Island cemetery on Sept. 26, Sciorra’s campaign will be complete. Referring to Panto, Sciorra said it would be “a closing of his life” and a moment of recognition for those who contributed to a GoFundMe campaign that raised the money for the tombstone, about $7,500. Sciorra said the donors ranged from “people sending in $20 and people sending in $500, many not Italian Americans” like Panto, “but people who said things like, ‘My grandfather was Swedish, he worked on the docks in Brooklyn, this is for him.’”

Panto’s disappearance in 1939 left other longshoremen to worry that they, too, would end up dead if they grumbled too loudly about the corruption that permeated their working lives. His body was not found until 18 months later. No one was arrested for the murder.

Sciorra discovered a couple of years ago when he went to St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y., on Long Island, that Panto had been buried in an unmarked grave. In Section 9, Row F, No. 224, he found no tombstone, only dry grass and dead leaves.

Sciorra decided a tombstone was needed and soon found himself going back and forth with cemetery officials and monument masons about the design. He said he was told “You can’t have quotation marks on a tombstone,” so the first line read simply Pietro Pete Panto, not, as Sciorra originally planned, Pietro “Pete” Panto.

I also want to point out that anyone interested in why unions could easily get mobbed up should read David Witwer and Catherine Rios’ Murder in the Garment District: The Grip of Organized Crime and the Decline of Labor in the United States which basically demonstrates that since cops hated unions too, they wouldn’t do anything when the mob started taking over and so the union leaders made deals with the mob just to survive and do the best they could. It’s a compelling book and also demonstratively shows that the anti-union columnist Victor Riesel was not blinded by a unionist but rather by Johnny Dio and that literally everyone from Eisenhower and Hoover on down knew this but anti-unionism served all their interests so they let him blame it on the unions.

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