Waterfront Conflict - General Project Description And Selection Criteria

This project will portray the turmoil on New York’s Waterfront from 1945-1959. This conflict was partly portrayed in the famous 1954 film On The Waterfront, but as usual Hollywood failed to capture the whole story. There was certainly an element of criminality on the docks, but much of the conflict on the waterfront also came from a union struggle between the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen (IBL). This battle for power resulted in a war of propaganda between the two organizations and various strikes and disruptions in work.

This skirmish remains an important one in New York’s history as the conflict happened in a crucial industry at a delicate time in New York’s post-war period. The issues speak to the development of industry and unionization in post-war New York, conceptions of class within and upon New York’s working-class, political struggles on the local, municipal and state level, they hyperbole of the New York media and more. The trouble on New York’s waterfront was a major event at the time with massive press coverage and speculation and the formation of a Crime Commission by Mayor Dewey in 1951. While the media latched onto the allure of underworld in their headlines, longshoremen from the IFL and IBL clashed (sometimes violently) in efforts to control working conditions and how contracts would be settled in the future. The selection of documentation for this project will try to bring in both of these venues of contention with a slight concentration on the latter. Selection will also preference will be given to visually illustrative material, but certain texts will also be important.

Part of the documentation used in this project will pertain to the noted and oft over emphasized criminal element that developed within the waterfront industry. Selections will be taken from the Waterfront Commission Report, various clippings from periodicals, and relevant items from The International Longshoremen’s Association: Reference Files of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Collection at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. While some of this material is already publicly available and some of it even available on the internet (such as various newspaper clippings), bringing it together in one location can help put these items in a context where they can be better understood.

A major part of the project will be focusing on the more ignored portion of the waterfront conflict which occurred between the struggling unions at odds with each other. The International Longshoremen’s Association: Reference Files of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Collection at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives contains pieces of pamphlets, flyers, and union election materials which show the propaganda battle going on. Emphasis in digitization will be put on words and imagery which are laced with ideas of class and show the conceptions of life on the waterfront as viewed by union management and the rank and file longshoremen. Additionally, scans will be taken from The New York Longshoreman, published by the ILA, and other relevant waterfront publications. Once again, emphasis will be placed on items from these serials which highlight the propaganda battle over support from the longshoremen.

Overall, this project should broaden the usual conception of criminals and “tough guys” on New York’s waterfront and show that the battle on the docks was also one of ideas between organizations seeking power.

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