Republicans were anathema on the Irish waterfront. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated fifty years ago this week, Irish waterfronts from the West Side of Manhattan to Portland, Maine (where many dockworkers remained Irish-language speakers) celebrated, less because of JFK’s ethnicity or religion—on the waterfront everybody was Catholic–than the Democracy’s restoration to its rightful stewardship of the national body politic.
The Port of New York Authority had worked doggedly in the late 1940s and early 1950s to remove mobbed up stevedoring firms–and the hiring-foreman gangsters with whom they colluded–from the PA’s recently-acquired piers in Newark and Hoboken (yeah, I know; it would take another two decades before the “bi-state agency” added “New Jersey” to its masthead). The Port Authority reasoned—and Pete Corridan ardently concurred—that rank and file dockworkers would readily embrace the move as a giant step toward union democracy not to mention enhanced security of life and limb.
Yet the rank and file quickly and vociferously denounced the Port Authority and its nefarious works. Why? Because of the alleged influence of Republican politicos at the agency: that’s why. I was surprised and dismayed to learn this, surely in part because I’m no great fan of the Grand Old Party, and even an ungrounded allegation that my guy Pete Corridan was in cahoots with characters like Thomas E. Dewey, the ex-crime-busting, twice-losing GOP candidate for the Presidency (classic headline notwithstanding), took a bit o’ wind from my heroic narrative’s sails. Yet it was in fact Dewey who as New York governor collaborated with Corridan and the PA to help toss the International Longshoremen’s Association out of the port, if not out of the labor movement entirely.
My tender feelings were much less important, ultimately, than the stories that slowly disclosed themselves via archival materials, particularly the letters from dockworkers to Pete Corridan imploring: leave us alone; beat it; you don’t speak for us, turned around collar or no turned around collar. There is nothing more humbling to an opinionated historian than an archival collection loaded with contradictory evidence; it speaks in voices most forceful. And as our friend Carlo R. might say, that’s the job of work we’ve chosen to do, sifting through then discerning from the evidence before us. And from those mountains of archival materials are the best and truest stories sculpted.