The Rackett-Ridden Longshoremen

The Rackett-Ridden Longshoremen

Rimmed off from the rest of the city by a steel-ribbed highway and a wall of bulkhead sheds is the New York waterfront, an atavistic world more redolent of the brawling money-grubbing of the nineteenth century than the smooth-mannered business transactions of the twentieth. Cross the shadow line and you are in a rough, racketridden frontier domain, ruled by the bull-like figure of the “shaping boss.” Here brawn and muscle, sustained where necessary by baling hook and knife, enforce discipline among a motley group of Italian immigrants, Slavic and Negro workers, and a restless and grumbling group of Irish. Here one finds kickbacks, loansharking, petty extortion, theft and pilferage—and murder—a commonplace of longshore life. Many of the docks are controlled directly or indirectly by mobsters who dominate the pier union local, parcel out the jobs and run the rackets. The rank-and-file, cynical about any settlement by the leadership of the union, sometimes took the only course it knew, i.e. of “voting with its feet,” a wildcat strike; but then, ironically, only with the backing of dissident racket leaders who used the occasion to challenge the entrenched mobs. In the decade after the war—in part because of this “factionalism,” in part because of ethnic antagonisms— every major collective bargaining agreement between the shipping companies and the longshore union was repudiated by the men.

Why this racket domination has persisted is the subject of a broader paper. The answer, briefly, involves an understanding of the economics of the industry, the peculiar political relationships between the union and the urban Democratic party machine in the port cities, the ethnic patterns within the longshoremen groups, the psychology of the longshoremen as an “isolated mass” suspicious of the urban community around them, and the “Chinese warlord” structure of the union itself. But these elements only provide the setting. What is distinctive, and has to be understood, is the role of the industrial racketeer.

I make a distinction between corruption and industrial racketeering. Corruption involves spoliation of union funds, pay-offs, bribes, shakedowns, etc. It is a form of abuse of office or extortion from others, for the personal gain of the malefactor. If the cost is not too high, or can be passed along easily to others as in the building trades, it becomes an accepted part of the way of doing business; if too exorbitant it may lead to a demand for government intervention. Industrial racketeering, however, performs the function—at a high price—which other agencies cannot do, of stabilizing a chaotic market and establishing an order and structure in the industry. Industrial racketeering can exist only in a specific type of economic market. It does not exist in steel, auto, chemical, rubber, etc., where a few giant firms, acting in oligopolistic fashion, establish an ordered ...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: