Longshore battle: 1951-54
A long battle raged within and outside the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) that represented East Coast dockworkers pitting union reformers against an entrenched union bureaucracy that included gangster elements in its midst from 1951-54.

The dispute had its roots in internal disputes within the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in October 1951 over the ratification of a labor agreement.

Dissident members of the ILA contended that the contract ratification vote was rife with fraud and staged a 25-day strike on the New York waterfront.

In order to end the strike, New York Industrial Commissioner Edward Corsi named a commission to look into the vote.

A 114-page report issued in January 1952 found that the vote was valid and while there were some irregularities, they were not enough to overturn the result.

But the report went far beyond its initial mandate when it found that the union was in need of serious reform and pointed to allegation of gangster influence. The report made no explicit criticisms of the wildcat strikers.

New York’s tabloid newspapers took up a crusade, running a series of lurid reports about gangster influence and racketeering on the docks. Gov. Thomas Dewey appointed a commission to undertake a full-scale investigation of criminal activity within the union.

In January 1953, the American Federation of Labor issued a directive to the ILA to clean up or face expulsion. The federation, along with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, had already received a body blow with the Taft-Harley Act of 1947 and were looking to avoid further restrictions on union activity by Congress.

The effort would ultimately fail and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was enacted to bar convicted felons and communists from union office and provide government supervision of union finances and elections.

Meanwhile, Dewey’s commission gave ILA President Joseph Ryan’s opponents an opportunity to come forward to criticize the union leadership. The union took some measures to remove blatantly corrupt union officials.

Meanwhile in August 1953, the American Federation of Labor executive council recommended suspending the ILA from membership in the body due to its failure to act decisively. Ryan pleaded for more time to enact his plan for internal reform, but his pleas were rebuffed.

The AFL then created the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen (IBL) and a bitter campaign followed for loyalty among East Coast dockworkers.
Under the pressure of the allegations against the union, Ryan resigned president of the ILA and was replaced by Captain William V. Bradley at the November 1953 convention of the union.

In December 1953, the old ILA defeated the IBT in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of New York dockworkers, but that was not the end of it.

Dewey continued to mount pressure on the union from the state of New York and the IBT contested the election with the NLRB.

Tension on the New York piers was mounting. ILA loyalists and many other longshoremen were at best suspicious of the IBL, which they viewed as a machine of the New York Waterfront Commission and a scab union—an organization of workers perceived as having a role in strike breaking.

In February 1953, the New York Port Authority prohibited Workers with criminal records from working on the docks and discharged 59 workers. Many dockworkers were incensed. The docks were a place for a second chance and even those without a prior record were enraged when they saw long time employees discharged.

By early March 1954, the storm finally hit when International Teamsters Union president David Beck was perceived as betraying the ILA by refusing to cross an IBL picket line. News spread and on piers up and down Manhattan, ILA longshoremen refused to touch Teamster deliveries. Gangs of longshoremen walked off the docks in a wildcat strike.

The dockworkers contract with shipping companies had expired in September 1953 with the companies refusing to negotiate until the bargaining agent was determined. The strikers demanded that the ILA be recognized as the bargaining agent and that the discharged men with criminal records be reinstated.

An NLRB injunction forbade ILA leaders from striking or disrupting freight transportation. Violence erupted as the IBL, facilitated by the police and Beck's Teamsters, clashed on picket lines with ILA members.

Then the NLRB examiner effectively overturned the December elections. This proved to be the last straw, for less than a week later, Bradley made the ILA strike official.

Over 1,000 striking New York longshoremen picket in front of the White House March 29, 1954 to protest the federal government’s role in the dispute over union representation.

The balance of power began to shift as longshoremen along the coast refused to handle diverted cargo. Dewey's anti-ILA entourage responded to the shift with a series of legal actions. Then, the NLRB officially set aside the results of the December elections and called for a new vote.

The final blow to the strike, however, was the NLRB's announcement that the ILA would be banned from future elections unless it ended the work stoppage "forthwith". Bradley had little choice but to send his men back to work.

On May 26, 1954, an NLRB supervised vote was held to determine the bargaining representative for New York dockworkers. The old ILA defeated the IBL 9,407-9,014 with 666 challenged ballots.

In July 1954, the movie “On the Waterfront” was released starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint and directed by Elia Kazan was released, forever cementing the union as corrupt in the public’s eye.

In August 1954, the NLRB certified the election after determining that 491 of the challenge ballots were from hatch bosses. The board ruled that hatch bosses were not part of the bargaining unit and were instead supervisory employees. The remaining challenged votes were insufficient to change the outcome.

However, The IBL did not go quietly and forced a third representational election in 1956, in which it was again defeated.

By the time an AFL-CIO committee recommended re-admittance for the ILA in August 1959, the IBL was active only in the Great Lakes. In October, the IBL officially dissolved itself and IBL president Larry Long became president of ILA's Great Lakes District.

The long struggle pitted union reformers against an entrenched machine and ended in defeat for the reformers when both the state and federal government overreached on the side of the reformers and turned many of the rank and file against them.
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