Will the Real Johnny Friendly Please Stand Up?

Here’s what Peggy Noonan got backwards in Friday’s WSJ. Today’s ‘Johnny Friendlys’ are not the allegedly power-mad leaders of public unions, but more nearly the Chris Christies, Scott Walkers, and any state’s governor wishing to emulate these gents’ union-eviscerating tactics.

The fact is Johnny Friendly was not a labor leader; not in On the Watefront and certainly not in real-life, where the waterfront kingpins on whom his character was explicitly based were mobbed-up politicos who rebuffed at every turn their consitutuents’ legitimate aspirations for union democracy, collective bargaining, pension plans, and dignity of working conditions.

I understand that many adult Americans have not seen this brilliant movie since their parochial school (or equivalent) days, so we’re here to self-servingly yet public-spiritedly recommend our book as an adequate and historically reliable treatment not only of the film but its richly complex back-story (Irish Waterfront is now available on Kindle at a handsome discount!).

That’s where readers will learn that dockworkers in the Port of New York and New Jersey had never been represented by a legitimate union, and that the Johnny Friendlys of the Port had colluded most lovely for decades with management and capital–in the form of stevedoring and steamship corporations–in direct and brazen violation of the rank and files’ legitimate interests.

No pensions, no genuine collective bargaining, no vacation days, no dignity of work. If longshoremen didn’t like it, they were invited to contemplate the convenient burial site offered by the chilly waters of New York Harbor. All they had to do was notice the far-from-mysterious absence of dozens of their aspiring union-building compatriots.

The scandal of the Port was that sixty or seventy thousand men went wholly unrepresented by a labor union as commonly understood: that’s why Budd Schulberg worked for five years to get On the Waterfront made (with a hand-held camera if it came to that). And that’s why Budd and his spiritual mentor and inspiration Pete Corridan worked tirelessly on behalf of a real union they hoped and prayed (in vain) would supplant the company union whose leader gaudily flaunted the title ‘President for Life.”

Johnny Friendly was in no wise, then, a labor leader akin to the women and men who have toiled for decades on behalf of–among others—public school teachers, lest we forget the days when married women and women with children were banned from that profession. Lest we forget plenty of history, which forgetting seems of late as great an occupational hazard among columnists as a civic challenge bedeviling the American public at large.


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