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William J. Mello, New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks.

William J. Mello, New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks (Gainesville: University Press of Florida 2010)

WITH THIS BOOK, William J. Mello offers a fascinating account of rank-and-file rebellion among East Coast dockworkers in the post-war era. The docks of Manhattan might be overrun by condominiums and urban parks today, but Mello's account brings to life a very different portside world, one where tens of thousands of longshoremen struggled to make a living and to gain some measure of control over their working conditions. As Mello's detailed historical work makes clear, these struggles led rank-and-file workers into confrontations not only with their employers and political elites, but also with corrupt officials in their own union, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA).

Drawing on the archives of rank-and-file newsletters, oral histories of waterfront activists, several interviews, and a range of secondary sources, Mello homes in on the three decades following the end of World War II. The book asks two questions: "First, what were the limits imposed by business elites and political authorities against rebellious dockworkers? Second, what was the longshoremen's political capacity to succeed given the limits to class action?" (1)

In responding to these questions, the book moves gingerly between the distant and the local. Mello describes the ways in which the general climate of anticommunist McCarthyism pervading the United States in the post-war era created challenges for dockworkers fighting for greater control over their working lives, not least by provoking employers' use of investigative agencies and loyalty programs aimed at disarming rank-and-file activists. He speaks in particular about the barriers thrown up by the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959, both of which ushered in new institutional constraints for unionists. Along the way, the Bi-State Waterfront Commission was created, altering historically entrenched hiring procedures and shifting decisions about the waterfront labour process away from the employer-union nexus, thereby reducing workers' capacity to intervene.

To this we can add the host of difficulties workers encountered in their own organization, where union officials often worked hand-in-hand with employers and politicians to silence tank-and-file militancy. This was the case in 1939, for example, when union thugs murdered Pete Panto, an outspoken leader of the Brooklyn Rank and File Committee, which was demanding changes to corrupt hiring procedures. It was also the case when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) cooperated with government officials to spearhead a campaign to replace the ILA with an equally conservative and violent AFL-affiliated union.

Amidst all of these challenges, rank-and-file activists were hardly docile. Though gangsters took the life of Pete Panto for his activism on the docks, their threats had not stopped the formation and growth of the Brooklyn Rank and File Committee, nor that of similar groups. Between 1945 and 1947, these efforts contributed to an explosion of wildcat strikes as longshoremen challenged their lack of control over working conditions and their union. Mello's excellent documentation of these wildcats and the rank-and-file organizing that underlay them puts to rest the notion that East Coast dockworkers were a conservative lot.

This activism led to some important victories for East Coast longshoremen, including the establishment of a Guaranteed Annual Income for workers. However, the overarching story revealed in this book is one of evaporating space for rank-and-file militancy. In the first phase of this history, immediately following World War II, workers responded to high levels of coercion emanating from informal alliances between union officials, political elites, and employers by engaging in highly disruptive wildcat strikes. As it became clear that the ILA was incapable of keeping the rank-and-file in line, these alliances broke down. Beginning in 1947, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, the second phase of this history saw employers and political elites work to introduce regulatory measures that limited worker and union involvement in decision-making over the waterfront labour process. By the end of the period considered by Mello, rank-and-file activism on the East Coast docks was but a shadow of what it had been in the 1940s.

This book is at its best when it delves deep into the dynamics of rebellion on the docks. Mello brings us close to the activists who struggled to build militancy among the ranks. The history of the labour movement is too often hidden from mainstream view, yet it is the stories of rank-and-file activists fighting for democracy--in the economy, but also in their own unions--that rarely see the light of day. Mello does us all a service by bringing these stories out into the open.

This book is also valuable for what it reveals about the decline of labour power in the immediate post-war period. Often, accounts of the American labour movement suggest that union power rose and fell alongside the rise and fall of membership numbers, with the apex of power occurring in the 1960s. Yet, as Mello's account makes clear, the capacity of workers to make gains was seriously undermined by interventions stretching back to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, even as membership continued to grow. This is not a new finding, yet the historical detail offered here sheds light on how this process occurred in one important sector of the economy.

Nevertheless, the book also has several weaknesses. To begin with, it is uneven in its treatment of detail. For example, Mello dedicates eight pages (33-41) to a discussion of the murder of Peter Panto, and a further seven pages to a discussion of a single wildcat strike in 1945 (45-52), yet the book has no sustained discussion of the ongoing organizing and educational strategies of rank-and-file activists. It also contains far too little detail on the evolving economic climate that shipping companies and dockworkers confronted --from the competitiveness of the New York port, to concentration of ownership in the industry, to fluctuations of unemployment and wage levels in the New York and American economy. More generally, the book relies on too few sources --for example, large swathes of the text are drawn overwhelmingly from articles published in the New York Times.

A more substantial shortcoming lies in the book's analytical weakness. One of Mello's central goals is to assess the political capacity of dockworkers to achieve their goals, yet his research strategy makes an estimation of political capacity virtually impossible. In large part, this is because Mello fails to make better use of comparison in his research. The book considers one failed case (East Coast dockworkers who wanted more control but failed to achieve it), pointing to a long list of factors that likely contributed to its failure. Such a strategy leaves readers wondering which factors were most important in limiting workers' political capacity and why other cases not considered here, such as the West Coast longshoremen, experienced greater success in expanding political capacity despite exposure to many of the same forces. These are difficult questions that demand a more rigorous research design than Mello offers in this book.

Overall, the strengths of the book outweigh its weaknesses. This is a text that students of the American labour movement should read and build upon.


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Author:Stanley, Jason
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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