On the waterfront

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Nov 24 12:19:12 MST 1999

Published by H-Labor at h-net.msu.edu (October, 1999)

Calvin Winslow, ed. _Waterfront Workers: New Perspectives on Race and
Class_. The Working Class in American History.  Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1998. 204 pp. Notes and index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN
0-252-02392-7; $17.95 (paper), ISBN 0-252-06691-X.

Reviewed for H-Labor by Peter Cole <pcole at boisestate.edu> Department of
History, Boise State University

For those of us interested in how ethnic and racial identities affect the
American working class, _Waterfront Workers_, edited by Calvin Winslow, is
a welcome addition to our bookshelves.  The subtitle, though, is somewhat
misleading, for these essays do not provide "new perspectives on race and
class" per se, but, instead, contribute to a now lively and not-so-young
debate on how American workers have dealt with the often thorny
intersections of class, ethnicity, and race.  In fact, some of the most
exciting work in recent years in American labor history, and I would say
in all of American history, has been on this topic.  Rather than building
more walls, scholars such as Thomas Sugrue, David Roediger, Dan Letwin,
and others have been breaking down barriers between subfields needlessly
segregated.  This trend in labor history is absolutely necessary as the
American population, the working classes, and the labor movement itself
become increasingly diverse.

As the study of race and labor has evolved, a number of fine scholars have
focused their gaze on the waterfront; truly, there are few better places
in American history to look.  The type of work that the marine transport
industry often required (unskilled) and the requisite locations for this
work (ports) guaranteed that a diverse group of people and wide variety of
ideas, as well as commodities, would circulate along the waterfront.  As
with any collection of essays, though, this one is somewhat uneven; of
course, historians have different interests, so focus on different aspects
of race and class on "the 'front."  The book begins with a solid
introduction from Winslow that summarizes the world of the waterfront
worker for those not familiar with it.  Although Winslow claims that race
is central to understanding this milieu, the issue is not thoroughly
discussed here--a problem that percolates through a number of the essays,
where the respective authors pay homage to the centrality of ethnicity and
race, but then almost completely ignore the subject.

The first essay, "Biracial Unionism in the Age of Segregation," by Eric
Arnesen displays the type of keen analysis and thorough research that he
has displayed in previous writings.  Exploring four ports on the Gulf of
Mexico and the mid-Atlantic port of Baltimore, Arnesen suggests that a
host of factors explained the existence or absence of biracial unions:
white longshoremen's realization of how a racially divided workforce
resulted in lower pay and weak unions; the unskilled nature of the work
that allowed for easily replacing strikers and unionists; the port's
employment structure; the power of employers (especially international
shipping companies and mammoth railroad companies); the diversity of a
port's commodities, and; in particular, the power of blacks to organize
into their own unions.  Arnesen concludes that the International
Longshoremen's Association (ILA), the AFL's craft union of dockers,
adopted a biracial policy that was based solely upon pragmatism, in
contrast to the ideologically motivated effort at interracialism displayed
in Philadelphia by the IWW's Local 8.  Thus, the ILA's approach resulted
in both the spectacular and durable biracial unions of the New Orleans
waterfront amidst the rise of Jim Crow as well as the exclusion of black
longshoremen from the same organization in Mobile.  Arnesen's multiple
factors and the historical peculiarities of each port mean that drawing
sweeping conclusions simply will not be possible. [1]

Calvin Winslow explores a fascinating, important, and often overlooked
event in his essay "'Men of the Lumber Camps Come to Town': New York
Longshoremen in the Strike of 1907."  In particular, Winslow does an
excellent job of bringing the world of New York's longshoremen to life,
both before and during the strike action.  Winslow argues that in spite of
the strike's failure, the industrial unionist slant and diversity of the
workforce demand that we reconsider this dramatic strike that literally
stopped (maritime) traffic for a month and a half, beginning appropriately
enough on May Day.  Winslow is correct in placing this conflict into the
contexts of growing waterfront labor strife and syndicalism that swept
through the industrial world in the World War I era.  It is less clear,
however, how many of the strikers truly were committed to the "new
unionism."  Winslow's main evidence is the noteworthy demand for a
universal wage scale regardless of the type of work performed, but equal
pay for marine transport work does not mean that the longshoremen dreamed
of the One Big Union.  Further, that all of the strikers seemed equally
committed to both craft- and ethnic-based locals certainly brings into
question whether these workers wanted an industrial union and begs a
second question of why even the radical Italians (the leaders of the
strike)  remained outside of the IWW's orbit.  Another issue that requires
further scrutiny is how the ethnically and racially divided local unions
managed to overcome the myriad difficulties involved in interracial,
multiethnic unionism--perhaps the socialistic tendencies of the Italians
were instrumental but it is not obvious and no information on this issue
is offered.  This rank-and-file uprising challenged both employers and
labor leaders, but the end result is dubious.  Racism and ethnic
segregation was the norm before the strike, and it remained so in its
aftermath.  Winslow implies that perhaps an industrial union could have
overcome employer power, hidebound union leaders, and a heterogeneous
workforce, but such a conclusion appears to be wishful thinking--at least
in New York.

In contrast, Howard Kimeldorf explores the increasingly well-known Wobbly
longshoremen of Local 8, who managed to form a powerful industrial union
along a very diverse Philadelphia waterfront.  Ironically, considering
that perhaps no union in the World War I era was more successful at
overcoming the difficulties seemingly inherent in a heterogeneous
workplace, "Radical Possibilities? The Rise and Fall of Wobbly Unionism on
the Philadelphia Docks" focuses its attention upon the question of
durability rather than diversity.  True, Kimeldorf has dealt with this
issue elsewhere (and does deal with it somewhat here), but considering the
nature of this collection, this article is a bit disappointing even though
it is very well-written.  It seems clear, though, that Philadelphia's
dockworkers only succeed at forming a powerful union when successfully
crossing racial and ethnic divides in 1913 and decline when racial splits
return in 1922, but Kimeldorf devotes insufficient space to these crucial
issues.  Instead, Kimeldorf traces the basic outline of Local 8's story,
effectively explaining how Local 8 overcame the myriad obstacles in their
path, including employer, governmental, and social opposition.  There is
not an adequate discussion, however, of the IWW's commitment to racial
inclusivity or why the longshoremen vote to join the Wobblies in 1913.
And considering his previous book, in which he assailed New York City's
Irish Catholic longshoremen for a corrupt and conservative union, it would
have been appropriate for him to analyze why Philadelphia's Irish
Catholics committed themselves fully to Local 8's cause.  In fact,
Kimeldorf's essay is far too "black and white," ignoring the many
differences among the longshoremen, including, yes, European versus
African descent but also native-born versus immigrant and Protestant
versus Catholic.  There were more Poles and Lithuanians on the Delaware
than Irish Americans, but the reader would not know it from this article.

Colin Davis tells the dramatic story of the 1949 New York City
longshoremen's strike in "All I Got's a Hook: New York Longshoremen and
the 1948 Dock Strike."  This New York story is the basis for the
stereotype which, unfortunately, most Americans associate with all
(waterfront)  unions, one of corrupt union officials collaborating with
gangsters to line their own pockets at the expense of both shipping
companies and longshoremen.  Davis' essay suffers from some of the same
faults as Kimeldorf's.  Although race and ethnicity is ever-present in New
York, you would not know it from this essay--again surprising considering
the theme of the collection.  Davis never even tells the reader what the
racial composition of the workforce is in 1949, instead only footnoting an
article by Calvin Winslow on the 1919 New York strike.  Davis does include
some interesting information on the role of Catholicism, especially "labor
priests," in this chapter of what could be a book on the massive
rank-and-file rage that periodically erupted in New York.  However, there
is little else on ethnicity and race in this essay, thereby missing an
opportunity to explore how the Irish-dominated union interacted with the
many Italian American, German American, African American, and other groups
who worked in the mammoth New York harbor.

The collection ends on a strong note in Bruce Nelson's essay "The 'Lords
of the Docks' Reconsidered: Race Relations among West Coast Longshoremen,
1933-61," which discusses how the celebrated progressivism of the
International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union (ILWU) stumbled on
the race question in its large San Pedro (Los Angeles) local.  Nelson's
excellent essay dovetails nicely with Arnesen's opening one, investigating
how biracial/interracial unionism was quite a mixed bag, depending so much
on local conditions.  There are clear differences, as the ILA's approach
was pragmatic and the ILWU's was ideologically based, but in both essays
the power of a well-organized white workforce succeeded in preventing
blacks from advancing on the job and in the union.  Nelson's essay is very
well-researched, benefiting from the many oral histories gathered by
fellow historians (we all should have such resources at our disposal!).
Nelson reconsiders some issues that he only briefly dealt with in his book
on the west coast longshoremen.  There, he, as had many others, lavished
praise upon the ILWU for their commitment to racial inclusivity.

As Nelson shifts gears and starts grappling with the fundamental issue of
race and ethnicity in the American working class, however, his
interpretation changes somewhat--we now see race as a far greater obstacle
to class-based social movements.  In San Pedro's Local 13, a white
majority effectively prevented black longshoremen from attaining work and
union membership, while the international's leadership, including Harry
Bridges, essentially allowed this exclusion for fear of losing the large
and important port to the rival ILA.  The only place where Nelson stumbles
somewhat is when discussing the Mexican American longshoremen, who
occupied a world in between the powerful white majority and weak black
few.  Nelson inadequately explains why the Mexican American longshoremen
were less objectionable than the African American ones, even though few
participated in the seminal 1934 Big Strike and prejudice against Chicanos
was rampant in Los Angeles during this era (e.g. the Zoot Suit Riots
during World War II).  Despite this issue, Nelson's essay is quite
provocative, proving just how racist and obstinate white workers have been
and how even well-meaning white leaders quite easily went along with
exclusionary practices at the local level.  Truly, this tale is a
cautionary one. [3]

All told, the collection is a worthy contribution to the exciting and
growing field of race and labor.  The essays touch on the largest and most
important ports in the land from the late nineteenth through the mid
twentieth centuries.  Due to the nature of the work, longshoring has been
one of the most heterogeneous types of work in America, including large
numbers of African Americans and European immigrants.  For those
interested in seeing how ethnicity and race play out in this, one of the
more heavily unionized and diverse, industries, _Waterfront Workers_is a
good book.


[1]. Eric Arnesen, "'It aint like they do in New Orleans': Race Relations,
Labor Markets, and Waterfront Labor Movements in the American South,
1880-1923," _Racism and the Labour Market: Historical Studies,_ ed. Marcel
Van Der Linden and Jan Lucassen (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 1995).

[2]. Howard Kimeldorf and Robert Penney, "'Excluded' By Choice: Dyanmics
of Interracial Unionism on the Philadelphia Waterfront 1910-1930,"
_International Labor and Working-Class History_ 51 (Spring 1997): 50-71;
Howard Kimeldorf, _Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative
Unions on the Waterfront_ (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1988);  Peter Cole, _Shaping Up and Shipping Out: The Philadelphia
Waterfront during and after the IWW years, 1913-1940_ (Ph.D.: Georgetown
University, 1997).

[3]. Bruce Nelson, _Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and
Unionism in the 1930s_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Louis Proyect
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