Masses & Mainstream
December, 1951, pp 43-45
Labor on the Move: 2
By HOWARD FAST
IT WAS just turning light, still with part of the sky gray-blue, as it often is so early in the morning, when I walked down Fourteenth St. toward the river. They had said they would meet me at six, at the corner of Eleventh Avenue, but I was a little early, and there was time for a cigarette on that cold, windy corner, watching the packinghouses load meat and counting the prowl cars. They came by almost one every thirty seconds. The two longshoremen drove a battered Buick. They drove alertly, their eyes watching and counting and estimating, as if they were in a battle zone. A moment after they had picked me up, they were rolling uptown under the express highway. They had been up all night, and there was a stubble of beard on their faces and circles under their eyes.
They drove past a local hall, and already the men were drifting out of a meeting. A handful of leaflets fluttered out of our car, and still in sight, I saw a tall Negro longshoreman pick one up and begin to read.
"We used to give them out by hand," our driver explained. "But when Ryan turned his hoodlums loose, it was worth your life."
We turned up to Tenth Avenue to buy gas, and while the tank was being filled I listened to what there was about the strike. There was no inside story. It was just what you read in the papers - that is if you were good at sorting out the truth from the lies. It was a story of men who never brought home enough pay to put food on their tables, who shaped up in the cold and rain and snow six days a week and worked on the average of two days a week, who never had the money for a pair of shoes, a doctor's bill, or a kid's coat, who were driven by gangsters, intimidated by gangsters, framed by gangsters, and sometimes murdered by gangsters - and who had all their bellies could hold.
That was the strike, a rank and file strike against the bosses and Joe Ryan, made and led by the rank and file, and this was the morning on which Joe Ryan, according to his public declaration, was going to break it.
On 35th Street, we dropped one of the men in the car. He stood in the morning shadows, lonely and haggard, his pockets full of leaflets, and we drove on uptown. We parked on 51st Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, shook hands, and decided to meet at the car after the shapeup. The driver had his leaflets to worry about, and I was here for a story. Ryan had promised the whole world the story at the morning shapeup.
I walked down to the river and Pier 90, where the Queen Mary lay, so tall and proud and beautiful. Pier 90 had been selected as the battleground, and the Queen was the coy prize. It was like night under the elevated highway at this early hour, but the picket line was in place and moving, blocking the way to the pier, a hundred and fifty longshoremen walking very slowly in a long ellipse. It was not so cold later in the day, but now an icy wind blew in from the river and the men on the line were chilled already. Their hands were in their pockets, and they were shoulder to shoulder. They wore windbreakers, sweaters, a few with old leather jackets, and denim or old army pants.
At that time, there were no cops to speak of around them, only a dozen or so easily posted, and I wondered at this strange freedom and wondered whether this was Mayor Impelliteri's gratefulness for the support Longshore gave him in the election. But when I entered the pier, I saw that the army was simply warming itself. There were at least two hundred uniformed police packed into the pier, and the spaces they left were full of plainclothes men and Justice Department agents and newspaper men and photographers, and all during the next hour, more and more police arrived. They came by car and they came by foot, and the horse cops trotted up like a regiment of cavalry. Our city police are wonderfully efficient when it comes to going up against strikers and clubbing down unarmed workers.
I WENT outside and stood in front of the pier. The shapeup was only forty-five minutes away now, and the forces of law and order were making ready to let King Joe Ryan and his strikebreakers and thugs take over. The cameramen were checking their equipment, and the newspapermen were grinning with nervousness and anticipation. The picketline was about twenty yards from where we stood, and the general staff of police brass, plainclothes men and Justice agents were whispering alongside of us as they laid out their plan of battle. But meanwhile the picketline was growing, and there were better than two hundred longshoremen on it now.
First, a wall of cops was formed around the picketline. Standing arm to arm, they fingered their nightsticks uneasily. Then a second line of foot cops to back them up, and then two solid ranks of horse cops. What respect for a handful of men in denims and flannel shirts! But more than that, it was going to be blood and broken heads and the proper odds of five cops to one man - and then for a hundred yards in every direction the waterfront was cleared, the adjoining blocks down which striker reinforcements were flowing sealed off by additional armies of cops, so that the picketline walked all alone in the center of the gloom under the elevated highway, alone and isolated and prepared for what the cops contemplated....
I think it was one of the bravest things I ever saw. It is hard for some people to understand the working class and the seed of mighty fulfillment that is in the working class, but here was a place which was saturated with fear, and the cops and the plainclothesrnen and the Justice men and the newspapermen were all full of fear, but the pickets were not. You had only to look at them to know that they were not afraid. Force was massed around them on every side; it walled them, encompassed them and it had many guns and clubs and they were unarmed, and before the day was over, many of them might be dead. But they weren't afraid. They weren't loud or boastful, but they smiled easily and they took strength from each other.
Their weather-beaten, work-hardened faces were strangely gentle, when you compared them to the faces of the cops. They were not Communists; they made little enough connection between what was happening here and in Korea, and perhaps they saw only the need for food on the table and clothes for their kids. But they had a strength and dignity and solidarity that holds a bitter threat for the future of Wall Street.
This was their strike. They had closed down the biggest waterfront in the world, sealed it off, organized hundreds of lines like this one, and held their front united.
The line was not broken, and the Queen Mary was not worked. Joe Ryan's threats and promises both failed. For beyond and behind the two hundred men within the wall of police were thirty thousand longshoremen whose bitter anger told Ryan and the cops too that they had better change their plans for this morning.