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Divided We Stand:
American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality
Bruce Nelson

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Chapter 1


Few occupational groups better illustrate the unevenness of working-class consciousness and the complexities of ethnic and racial conflict and accommodation in the United States than the men who labored "along shore," loading and unloading ships. The longshoremen were classically proletarian. They worked with their hands, developed a muscular workplace culture, and were rooted in dense communal networks that merged class, ethnic, and racial identities. They organized unions as early as the 1840s and engaged in strikes that paralyzed the economic life of major metropolitan areas. They were at once insular and cosmopolitan—reflecting the relatively self-contained mores of their neighborhoods and yet linked by their work to a wider world of commerce and culture, intensely local in their allegiances but willing to turn for leadership to Communists, syndicalists, and other critics of capitalism.

    In the nineteenth century, immigrants from Ireland and Germany competed for employment on the docks with northern free blacks and southern slaves. In the early twentieth century, new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe entered the labor market in large numbers and changed the face of the waterfront. The embattled Irish succeeded in maintaining several major enclaves. Blacks were driven from the docks in some cities but predominated in others. Mexicans gradually created a niche for themselves on the Texas Gulf Coast and in the booming port of Los Angeles. Along with "swarthy" Italians, they complicated the question of race by creating a sizable intermediate stratum of people who were not "black" but not yet "white" either.

    In organizing unions and exercising some control of their work environment, longshoremen continually came up against questions of race and ethnicity. Who qualified as one's fellow worker? Was it only kin, neighbor, and countryman? Or was it any able-bodied candidate who joined the ranks of job seekers at the "slave markets" where dockworkers vied for employment each day? There was no single answer to these questions. For many years longshoremen in each port worked out their own solutions. In the twentieth century, however, when trade unions finally developed a stable presence, they sought to impose more uniform patterns not only of wages and conditions but also of racial accommodation and exclusion.

    Of course, employers, the state, and other forces in the larger society played an important role in determining the complexion of the longshore labor force. Successive waves of new immigrants pressed against the ramparts of protected ethnic niches. Employers sought to increase the supply of labor and to exploit ethnic and racial differences for their profit-maximizing purposes. The state endeavored to bring a modicum of order to a notoriously disorderly environment and sometimes intervened in the chaotic rhythms of maritime commerce. Nonetheless, a long-term perspective suggests that the self-activity of the longshoremen themselves was vital, and sometimes decisive, in shaping patterns of ethnic and racial inequality on the waterfront.

    * * * * *

Today technology has rendered the longshoreman almost obsolete; the giant cargo container, which has dramatically reduced the need for labor in the loading and unloading of ships, is rightly called the longshoreman's coffin. But for centuries, wherever there was a harbor and waterfront commerce, an abundant supply of men labored along the shore. Their work routine was erratic, for ships sailing from distant ports and facing the vagaries of weather along the way could hardly be expected to keep a predictable schedule. And so the longshoreman waited, and then, if lucky enough to be chosen to work the ship's cargo, he might face twenty (or thirty, or even more) consecutive hours of frantic effort, stowing lumber or cotton, throwing sacks of coffee or sugar—in short, handling anything from steel beams to a passenger's luggage—driven always by the stern injunction that "the ship must sail on time." The transition from sail to steam reduced the unpredictability somewhat, but with its alternating rhythms of enforced idleness and hard, often dangerous, work, the waterfront remained a quintessential site of "casualism."

    Longshoremen lived out these rhythms in an environment characterized by extraordinary occupational diversity and geographic range. Waterfront communities, varying in size from the massive port of New York to the smallest lumber port in the Pacific Northwest, dotted a vast coastline stretching from Down East Maine all the way to Brownsville, Texas, and from San Diego to the Canadian border. In addition, there was a complex network of inland waterways, centered on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The centerpiece of this far-flung system was the port of New York, by far the largest in the nation. With more than 770 miles of shoreline and 350 miles of developed water frontage, the port encompassed seven major bays, the mouths of four large rivers, and four estuaries, stretching from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Staten Island and along the New Jersey coastline to Bayonne, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Port Newark. Perhaps 300,000 workers were employed in the handling of waterborne commerce in the port of New York—as seamen, longshoremen, checkers and weighers, tugboat and lighter men, truck drivers and freight handlers, railroad and shipyard workers, ship chandlers, and customs brokers. Among these occupations, the longshoremen were by far the most numerous. In 1914 well-informed observers estimated that between 40,000 and 60,000 dockworkers worked in the port. As late as 1938, a careful student of "the waterfront labor problem" concluded that New York accounted for about a third of the 150,000 longshoremen employed in the United States.

    Some dockworkers were specialists who handled only one type of cargo—coal heavers, grain shovelers, cotton screwmen, lumber handlers, and banana "fiends." They worked in gangs that ranged from four men in lumber and cotton to more than thirty in the case of banana handlers. General longshoremen, who dealt with the wide array of goods that most ships transported, were divided into three groups that constituted a clear but permeable occupational hierarchy. The most skilled men worked on deck, operating winches, rigging gear, and guiding the cargo from one place of rest to another. Then came the hold men, whose ability to stow cargo evenly was vital to a ship's safety. Finally, the dock men loaded and unloaded goods on the pier. Although the dock men began as the lowest stratum of the longshore hierarchy, the introduction of motorized vehicles and other mechanized equipment on the piers gradually propelled them ahead of their counterparts in the hold. "I worked in the [hold] for ten years before I got outta there," New York longshoreman Roy Saunders recalled in 1989. "That was the dogs. That was the worst. Cold in the wintertime, hot in the summer. They thought the men in the hold was the lowest."

    In the popular idiom, the longshoreman—wherever he worked—was a stereotypical creature, large of back but small of mind, at once a free spirit and the passive victim of oppressive circumstance. The long bouts of enforced waiting led to the portrayal of "men with a small capacity for mental analysis who are taking things exactly as they find them." In the novelist Theodore Dreiser's words, "They stand or sit like sheep in droves awaiting the call of opportunity. You see them in sun or rain, on hot days or cold ones, waiting." But another novelist captured a quite different dimension of the longshoreman: the happy-go-lucky fellow who, according to Ernest Poole, was "huge of limb, and tough of muscle, hard-swearing, quick-fisted, big of heart." Living in a waterfront world that was "enlivened with the most picturesque aspects of human nature," he cursed, he drank, he fought, and he lived for the moment and gave little thought to the morrow. The journalist J. Anthony Lukas provided a memorable portrait of such a man in his depiction of a Boston longshoreman who fought a barroom battle with cargo hooks; and then, after his opponent had driven a hook through his lip and out the middle of his chin, the bloody but unbowed victim "staggered to the bar and knocked back a shot of whiskey, which dribbled out through the hole in his chin."

    Beyond the stereotypes were the realities that the world "uptown" showed little interest in acknowledging. The hard-drinking, hard-swearing longshoreman of legend was often a family man who struggled against great odds to provide for his wife and children, engaging in a race with time against injury and the physical debilitation that years of dock labor inevitably wrought. In Liverpool it was said that a man could not work as a coal heaver for more than five years; in New York a veteran longshoreman told the federally appointed Commission on Industrial Relations that work on the docks used men up in ten years. And yet somehow they persevered. According to an estimate in an official report on dock employment in the port of New York, the majority of the longshoremen were between thirty and forty. Charles Barnes, the most careful observer of waterfront labor in the early twentieth century, implied that the average age was closer to fifty. Barnes and others were struck by the absence of young men on the docks. No doubt many younger men came and went. For those who stayed, the waterfront became a way of life. "After a man works at [the trade for] ten or fifteen years," said the superintendent of New York's largest stevedoring firm, "he gets into a groove and is not good for anything [else]."

    But he was, of necessity, good at what he did. Technically, longshoring was not skilled work; it was not acknowledged as a craft and did not require a formal apprenticeship. But in a workaday environment where human error and the ravages of weather could—and frequently did—bring injury and death, doing the job right required a touch that only "intelligence, experience, and superior judgment" could provide. A Liverpool union official declared that the "all-round" dockworker required "the intelligence of a Cabinet Minister ... [,] the mechanical knowledge and resource of a skilled engineer, and, in addition, the agility and quick-wittedness of a ring-tailed monkey." More prosaically, the author of a comprehensive government survey entitled "Longshore Labor Conditions in the United States" concluded that "when it comes to handling the ship's winches or to stowing the cargo in the ship's hold, ... such work can be learned only after several years of constant and persevering application."

    On the job, moreover, the longshoreman was not a free-spirited individual but a participant in a collective endeavor that required constant cooperation in order to equalize the expenditure of energy and to prevent accident or death. "They work in gangs so much," said one close observer of the waterfront, that "they learn the value of fellowship in ... way[s] that other men largely have not." One form this fellowship took was the tradition of monetary support for workers who had been hurt on the docks. Although they labored in one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, longshoremen were seldom compensated for their injuries by the employers or the state. Thus they developed an informal system for taking care of their own. In 1907 Ernest Poole noted that on payday, at almost every pay window, "stood a man with an empty cigar box, into which each docker dropped fifty cents or one quarter out of his pay." John Dwyer, a longshoreman born in 1915, affirmed the remarkable longevity of this tradition. "If somebody got hurt," he recalled in 1989, "they had a box every payday. The guys were good about throwing [in] a buck or two.... If you got hurt, you got whatever was in the box."

    Another mode of fellowship was more combative. Barnes observed that although dockworkers rarely obtained formal recognition from the shipowners and were almost invariably defeated when they went on strike, they nonetheless developed a tradition of solidarity that allowed them to exert considerable influence on the job, often informally, in a single gang or on a single pier. Generally, unions played no direct role in this activity, but longshoremen acting in concert were still able to compel wage increases, affect the pace of their labor, and have some say over the size and composition of their work gangs. "Whenever an advance in wages has been secured," Barnes wrote, "it has been the result of a demand pressed with calm determination." In many instances the companies were "forced to yield by the united resolution of the men to hinder the work in all possible ways until they won their point." Barnes found, moreover, that unions were gradually able to compel informal recognition on some of the most important piers in New York, until the companies instructed their hiring foremen not to reject union members. If a foreman were to do so, the men "would all quietly quit work."

    In sharp contrast to this quiet but proud tradition of solidarity, there was another reality on the docks: of raw exploitation, routine humiliation, and the common perception of the longshoreman as a hapless victim of a harsh environment. "When an accident takes place," said one observer, "often a man will lie there on the pier ... and in winter will be swept by the wind and snow for ... hours before anyone gets around to him." The city hospitals had a "thoroughly bad reputation" in this regard, for "a longshoreman[,] when he comes up from the hold[,] is generally so dirty and dusty ... that he is the last sort of person they want in the hospital; and if they can let him lie there they let him lie there." Far more common, but no less humiliating, was the daily reality of "bull driving" by foremen who were determined to get as much work out of their charges as possible. Often men were compelled to carry heavy sacks, weighing hundreds of pounds, "on the run," up and down gangways made slippery by rain, sleet, or snow. "There is too much bullying," said longshoreman Timothy Carroll. "The foremen are after you all the time, and they don't treat you like men.... If you want to go to the toilet or anywhere, they go down and pull you out." When asked to compare the pace of work in New York with that in his native Liverpool, Carroll replied, "I think this is Chinese labor [compared] to ... Liverpool." Carroll was a recent immigrant, but already he had intuited that "Chinese labor" symbolized the antithesis of "American manhood."

    Here was another contradiction. Hard physical labor on the docks and at construction sites engendered its own mystique of manhood. Although the work was exhausting and irregular, it implied physical prowess and independence in ways that white-collar employment, and even the confining regimen of the factory, did not. But the "bull-driving" foremen and the imperative that "the ship must sail on time" threatened this mystique. One response was overcompensation and a cult of hypermasculinity. Many longshoremen took a perverse pride in the danger of their work environment and in their ability to withstand the bull driving. To outsiders, they often appeared "swaggering and overbearing," and their quickness to settle disputes with their fists was "alarming." Drink provided another form of release. Alcoholism allegedly reached epidemic proportions in waterfront neighborhoods. And men who were robbed of their self-respect on the job were sometimes inclined to take out their frustrations on wives and children. Harold Gates, a teamster who grew up among longshoremen in working-class Greenwich Village, remembered it as "a terrible life."

    But there were compensations—in familial and ethnic networks, in the church, and even on the job. Dockworkers Sam Madell and Roy Saunders recalled one legendary aspect of longshoring. "There was a lot of stealing going on around the docks," said Madell. "It became particularly prevalent when a whiskey ship came in[. Then] it seemed like everyone on the waterfront would descend on the ship." Saunders agreed.

The whiskey business was bad, guys takin' cases and stashin' it.... And rum. When that rum was comin' in there in sixty-gallon barrels, 161 proof, the guys used to go down there and drill a hole in the barrel, make a peg first, so that when he fill up his pail, he sticks that peg in there to stop it from runnin'.

    Well, he'd go out and buy a nickel's worth of ice from the hot-dog man, and he'd put four or five Pepsi-Colas in it, and come around like a water boy. He'd walk right by the boss with that thing. One half a pail would make twenty-one men drunk. That was the whole gang.

    At the heart of the longshoreman's world, his curse as well as the key to his survival, was the shape-up, the daily routine at the pier head where the hiring foreman—the waterfront's true autocrat—selected the men needed to work a ship. As early as 1861, Henry Mayhew, the great English chronicler, gave an unforgettable portrayal of the "shape" in the port of London, where the livelihoods of twelve thousand workers depended on the docks but there was sufficient work for only four thousand. It was, Mayhew wrote, "a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only one day's hire; the scuffle being made the fiercer by the knowledge that hundreds out of the number there assembled must be left to idle the day out in want." In New York there was perhaps less scuffling, but as late as the 1950s a journalist saw the same "anxiety, eagerness, and fear" among the men in the shape, the same "relief and joy" among those chosen, and "bleak disappointment," even "despair," among those who were rejected.

    The shape-up was the means by which the employer guaranteed himself a surplus of labor and ensured a high rate of productivity from workers driven by the fear of the men "waiting at the gate" to replace them. The International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), the predominant labor organization in the industry, also favored the shape-up because it swelled the number of union members, kept their dues flowing into the ILA treasury, and offered ILA officials numerous ways to pad their pockets via kickbacks and other forms of graft. For all of these reasons, trade union and social reformers issued persistent calls for the abolition of the shape. In 1943 a U.S. Senate subcommittee declared with exasperation that it "is wasteful and inefficient; it has been condemned for over thirty years; it should be tolerated no longer." But many longshoremen appear to have accepted the shape—for some, even among the regularly employed, because it reflected their "casual frame of mind"; for others, because it offered at least the hope of a day's work at relatively high hourly wages, an opportunity that the implementation of any decasualization plan might have foreclosed. "It was one thing to stop new men entering the trade," wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm of the British experience; "quite another to throw Bill and Jack (and perhaps oneself) out on the streets."

    Critics of the shape-up were correct to point out that it encouraged a vast oversupply of labor and hence favoritism in the assignment of jobs. But even in New York the employers' need for a skilled and stable labor force and the longshoremen's need for a modicum of security and a living wage led to the development of regular gangs of twenty or more men who asserted their right to priority on a given pier and established local patterns of "custom and practice." Foreign-owned steamship companies such as Hamburg-American and North German Lloyd in Hoboken and the Cunard and White Star Lines in Manhattan hired workers "on a more or less permanent basis," beginning in the early years of the twentieth century (perhaps earlier). In 1938 a survey of dockworkers living in Greenwich Village noted the prevalence of regular gangs on Manhattan's West Side and pointed out that extra men were hired only after the regulars had been assigned. "A steady gang sticks to one pier," the survey team concluded, "and has an agreement with the stevedore that they will get work whenever there is any on that pier."

    The men who worked in steady gangs made up the core of the port's dock labor force, but they may have accounted for no more than half of the total. The regulars predominated in the foreign trade; the "extras," or "casuals," were more common in the coastwise trade. But virtually every dock attracted about twice the number of men it needed on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, the persistence of an unregulated and overabundant supply of labor inevitably meant that even the regulars faced economic insecurity and, sometimes, a condition close to poverty. This becomes strikingly evident from the data collected by the Greenwich Village survey team among longshoremen in one of the port's better and more secure working environments. Of course, 1938 was a Depression year, and that fact had a significant bearing on the data collected by the survey team. But in talking to 278 longshoremen, 217 of whom were heads of households, the Greenwich Village researchers found a level of deprivation that owed nearly as much to the character of the waterfront labor market as it did to the temporary weight of the Great Depression. The average annual family income of these men was nine hundred dollars, which at the prevailing rate of pay on the docks indicated that many of them had worked no more than half of the normal working days in the previous year. Many families depended on more than one breadwinner, although "usually it was the son or daughter who went to work, seldom the wife." Remarkably, after nearly a full decade of the Great Depression, only 29 percent of the families had ever been on relief, but this reflected their dogged aversion to the dole more than their economic circumstances. The survey team found that many of the families had lived in the same neighborhood, even the same house, for more than ten years, and in some cases more than twenty. And yet 91 percent of them still resided in old, walk-up tenements, and nearly half (47 percent) were compelled to use shared toilets in the hallways of their tenements. "From two to four families shared this kind of toilet," the survey team reported, "no matter how many people there were in the families. In many houses the toilets were so neglected by the janitor that foul odors permeated all the poorly ventilated halls."

    * * * * *

Whether they labored on Manhattan's West Side or along the East River, or for that matter in Boston or Baltimore, longshoremen were likely to be members of kinship, neighborhood, and ethnic networks that revolved around the waterfront's peculiar rhythms but also provided sustenance and solace against its harsh realities. In a trade where men labored collectively, under conditions that were often life-threatening, easy communication and mutual trust were vital to their well-being; and this trust developed most readily among family members, neighbors, and men of the same ethnic group. In the cities along the Mid- and North Atlantic coast, ethnicity was deeply ingrained in the dynamics of urban geography and politics. For those seeking work on the waterfront, the labor contractor and hiring foreman held the key, and winning their favor was often facilitated by ties of race and nationality. Thus ethnic camaraderie was a natural, even necessary, feature of waterfront life, and a distinct and resilient tradition of ethnic particularism continued to characterize the longshore labor market well into the twentieth century.

    The Irish became the dominant force on the New York waterfront in the 1850s, and as late as 1880 95 percent of the city's longshoremen were Irish and Irish American. (The remaining 5 percent, Barnes estimated, was made up of "Germans, Scotch, English, and Scandinavians.") But the question of how the Irish established their ethnic niche and which groups they displaced requires closer scrutiny. Is it possible that many of their predecessors were not native-born whites or other European immigrants but African Americans? And did the Irish feel compelled not only to displace blacks from dock labor but to erase any memory of their presence and to reconstruct the waterfront as "white" space?

    Recent historical investigation has confirmed that slaves and free blacks worked as seamen and dock laborers during the colonial period, and they continued in these roles during the early years of the new republic. In the 1790s a British visitor to the United States recorded his impression that most of the "inferior" labor in New York City was performed by blacks; and census data and city directories reveal that in the early years of the nineteenth century 40 percent of the free black male heads of household were "laborers or mariners." Since more than a third of the nation's trade passed through the port of New York, it is likely that many of those who showed up in the city directories as laborers worked as longshoremen, and that blacks were prominently represented among them. As late as the 1830s, blacks still worked as sail makers, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and blacksmiths in New York; another British visitor observed that the men who worked as scavengers, porters, dock laborers, barbers, and waiters in hotels were "all, or nearly all, black," and that "nearly all of the maid servants were ... black women." Increasingly, however, white aggression was pushing African Americans to the margins of the job market. According to historian Paul Gilje, the rioters who terrorized New York's black community during the infamous July Days of 1834 were mainly "journeymen and mechanics sliding down the economic scale or young workers whose hold on an occupation was tenuous." The riots began with attacks on the homes and churches of white abolitionists whose alleged crime was the advocacy of "immediate emancipation" and the "amalgamation" of the races. From there the reign of terror spread to the black community. Not only did the rioters attack individual workers and work sites, but they also demolished black schools and churches and ransacked black homes. Their targets imply a rage whose roots were deeper than the competition for bread. For many whites, especially those who found little stability and sense of community in their own daily existence, black schools and churches represented a mature and stable associational life that seemed to signify an inversion of the "natural order."

    Although job competition between blacks and whites was real enough in the early years of the republic, African Americans were soon inundated by the great surge of immigration from Britain, Ireland, and Germany that began in the 1820s. New York City's population quadrupled between 1830 and 1860. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, between 200,000 and 400,000 immigrants landed in the city every year; and by 1855, when the census recorded only 11,840 African Americans in New York, 51 percent of the city's population of 630,000 was foreign-born. No wonder Frederick Douglass lamented the fact that "every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place."

    The Irish were prominent among those doing the elbowing. During the thirty years preceding the onset of the Great Famine in 1845, between 800,000 and 1 million Irish men, women, and children emigrated to North America. For more than a century the overwhelming majority of those sailing westward had been skilled and Protestant and from the northern counties of Ulster, but by the end of the 1830s it was the unskilled and the Catholic, from the Gaelic South and West, who predominated in the emigrant stream. The famine not only added to the flow (between 1847 and 1851 nearly 850,000 Irish entered the United States through the port of New York) but accentuated its poor and "papist" character. By 1860 New York had become the world's most Irish city; its Irish-born population of 203,000 surpassed that of any city in Ireland.


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