Joe Bruno on the Mob – Joseph P. Ryan – President of the International Longshoremen Association – Port of New York


In 1892, the International Longshoremen Association (ILA) started out as a legitimate labor union in the Great Lakes area, to help the dockworkers get a fair shake from their employers. The ILA expanded to the east coast, and by 1914, ILA’s New York District Council was created. Almost immediately, the ILA became a mob stronghold, manipulated by the most vicious Irish mobsters of that era. The most prominent of whom was Joseph P. Ryan. But we’ll get to Ryan later.

http://www.amazon.com/Mobsters-Gangs-Crooks-Creeps-ebook/dp/B006H99D1U/ref=zg_bs_11010_5

To understand how the mob manipulated the docks, and the ILA, you must grasp the manner in which dockworkers were hired daily. The method for hiring was not who was the most qualified, the strongest, or the most industrious person available. The only thing that mattered is that you paid tribute to the hiring boss, who ran the docks like the Gestapo ran Hitler’s Germany.

The way it worked was like this: twice a day, all able-bodied men, who were looking for work, would line up in front of the loading dock. Then a stevedore (hiring boss) stood smugly in front of the dock, and one-by-one he selected the men who he deemed lucky enough to get a day’s work. Of course, you had no chance of getting a job if you didn’t give the stevedore a percentage of your day’s pay. The stevedore would then kick up the cash to the head stevedore, who would in turn kick it up to the ILA bosses. With this money, the ILA bosses would then grease the palms of politicians and cops, and everyone else who needed to get paid, to keep the money rolling into the pockets of the big shots who ran the ILA. And if you were known as somebody who had given the ILA trouble in the past, you might as well have stayed home, because there was no way the stevedore would even look at your face.

Joseph P. Ryan first burst on the scene around 1917, when he organized the ILA “New York District Council,” a branch of the nationwide ILA. In 1918, Ryan became president of the ILA’s “Atlantic Coast District.” It was during this time that the power began shifting from the Great Lakes to the Port of New York, which was closer to Europe, where many of the ships that were unloaded on the docks originated. During this time, the ILA was facing strict competition from the west coast-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The ILA was attempting to draw in the IWW into their organization, and in 1919 they succeeded.

In 1921, ILA President T.V. O’Conner resigned, and his place was taken by Anthony Chlopek, who turned out to be the last ILA President based in the Great Lakes. It’s not clear if he was appointed by Chlopek, or elected by the membership, but Joe Ryan served as the First Vice President of the ILA for all six years of Chlopek’s presidency.

In 1927, Ryan’s time had finally come. Ryan was elected President of the ILA, which power base was now firmly entrenched in the Port of New York.

Ryan’s journey from basically nobody to the President of the ILA had not been an easy one. Ryan was born on May, 11, 1884 in Babylon, Long Island. His parent were Irish immigrants, and Ryan suffered a severe blow at the age of nine when both of his parents died within a month of each other. Ryan was put in an orphanage, but he was eventually adopted by a woman who brought Ryan to live with her in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, a few blocks south of the lawless Hell’s Kitchen area.

Ryan did menial jobs in the neighborhood, before he got a job loading and unloading on the Chelsea Piers. In 1917, Ryan purchased his union book for the sum of two dollars and fifth cents. Within a few weeks, Ryan hurt his foot while unloading a freighter, and when he was released from the hospital, and not being able to work on the docks again, Ryan was somehow appointed to the job of secretary of ILA Local 791. From that point on, there was no stopping Joe Ryan’s meteoric rise.

“Boss Joe,” as Ryan came to be known, was a ruthless fighter, who elevated the shape/payback system on the docks to an art form. To enforced his vice-like grip on the ILA membership, Ryan hired the worst men imaginable, some of whom has lost their jobs as bootleggers when Prohibition ended in 1933, and some of whom had just recently been released from prison, where they had been sentenced for committing the most violent of crimes. These were the perfect men for Ryan to employ, since cracking a few heads, or legs, and maybe even killing a person once in a while, was certainly not adverse to these men’s nature.

Ryan’s power was so absolute, he organized fund raisers (his men were compelled to contribute, or else) for the politicians who were on Ryan’s pad; one of whom was Mayor Jimmy “Beau James” Walker. When Walker was forced to resign in 1932, Ryan, with tears dripping from his pen, issued a statement supporting the disgraced Walker. Ryan wrote, “The labor movement in the city of New York regrets that political expedience has deprived them of a Mayor whose every official act has been in conformity with the Americanistic (Ryan invented that word himself) policies of organized labor.

Ryan’s plan was to control all dockworkers in the United States, but in fact, his power hardly extended outside the boundaries of New York. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ascended to the Presidency in 1933, he enacted his New Deal, which solidified Ryan’s total control of the ILA. “The Norris-La Guardia Act,” which limited the use of injunctions to prevent strikes and picketing, helped Ryan assert his muscle on the docks. And the Wagner Act of 1935 guaranteed the rights of workers to vote for their own representation. And who controlled those votes? Why Joseph P. Ryan, of course.

Ryan’s biggest problem in uniting all ILA workers in America was the resistance he received from the west coast contingent, which was led by radical left-winger Harry Bridges. In 1934, Bridges organized a strike of the West Coast ILA, in rebellion over a contract Ryan had negotiated on their behalf. Ryan, incensed at the west coast insurrection, traveled extensively all over the west coast of America: to San Francisco, Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. In each location, Ryan argued the main sticking point to the negotiations: the shape-up form of employment. Ryan and his New York pals were for it, everyone on the west coast was against it; saying it was unfair to the workers. The West Coast ILA wanted to implement a “hiring-hall” system, in which “time in the hold” and “seniority” were the main factors in men getting work. Of course the “hiring hall” system would put an end to the stevedore graft machine, and Ryan wanted no part of that.

Ryan’s west coast trip was a complete failure. In each ILA location he visited, his recommendations were shot down, emphatically. The president of the Tacoma ILA local announced to the press, “No body of men can be expected to agree to their own self destruction.”

Things were so bad for Ryan in San Francisco, there were physical confrontations in the streets, between the west coast strikers, the strikebreakers Ryan had brought in from the east coast, and the local police. The riots were so violent, the National Guard was called in to end the disturbances.

Chalk that up as another loss for Ryan.

When Ryan returned home to the Port of New York, he was not a happy camper. He denounced his west coast opponents as “malcontents” and “communists,”and he strove to become even more diligent in exercising his absolute power over the New York ILA. One of Ryan’s most effective tools in keeping his men in line was the fact that he was able to issue union charters to whomever he saw fit. The men who received these charters were then able to form their own Union Locals. After these Locals were created, the individual local bosses would kick back a substantial part of the member’s dues to the Joseph P. Ryan Retirement Fund, of which, of course, there were no written records.

One such Local that Ryan had in his back pocket was Local 824, which was run by Ryan crony Harold Bowers. Local 824 was particularly prestigious and quite profitable because it presided over the Hells Kitchen piers, where luxury liners like the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were docked. Local 824 soon became known as the “Pistol Local” because it was almost completely comprised of Irish gangsters who had long criminal records. Local 824’s boss Bowers, an ex-con, had a criminal record as long as a giraffe’s neck. Bowers had been arrested for numerous crimes, including robbery, possession of a gun, grand larceny (twice), and congregating with known criminals. Bowers was also suspected in dozens of waterfront murders, but no murder charge could ever be pinned on him.

Harold’s cousin Mickey, as murderous a bloke as Harold, was also instrumental in running Local 824. Mickey was a suspect in the murder of Tommy Gleason, an insurgent in Local 824, who tried to wrest control of Local 824 from the Bowers family. Gleason was filled with lead while he was visiting a deceased pal in a Tenth Avenue funeral parlor. Mickey Bowers was suspected of Gleason’s murder, and he was brought in for questioning. However, with no concrete evidence, Mickey Bowers was released. There is no record of the Gleason murder having been solved, and it is not clear if Gleason was laid out in the same funeral parlor in which he had been shot.

In 1951, Ryan began losing control of the ILA, when his men did something they had never done before: they spat in the face of Ryan and his tyrannical leadership by going on strike. With over thirty thousand men involved (without pay of course), the strike lasted twenty five days. Due to the strike, 118 piers were shut down, and millions of dollars were lost by hundreds of companies, who needed their goods unloaded on the docks.

The leader of this strike was not a longshoreman, but a priest named Father John Corridan. The
son of a County Kerry-born policeman, Corridan was born in Manhattan’s Harlem. In 1928, Corridan graduated from Manhattan’s prestigious Regis High School. After completion of his seminary requirements and assignments in other parishes, in 1946, Corridan was assigned to the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations, on West 16th Street. There Father Corridan met many longshoremen who told him of the woes they suffered at the hands of men like Ryan and the Bowers cousins.

Being a street kid himself, the chain-smoking, fast-talking priest decided to do something about the abominations that were transpiring on the waterfront. Corridan teamed up with New York Sun writer Malcolm Johnson to write a series of articles entitled “Crime on the Waterfront.” These articles spurred writer Bud Schulberg to write the screenplay for the Academy Award winning movie “On the Waterfront, which starred Marlon Brandon and Lee J. Cobb. Actor Karl Malden played the part of Father Corridan, whose name in the movie, for some reason, was changed to Father Barry.

Soon after the New York Sun articles were published, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey announced that the state’s crime commission would open an investigation into criminal activities in the Port of New York. This investigation was called “The Waterfront Hearings.” During these hearings hundreds of men who worked on the waterfront were called in to testify (some were honest workers – others were ruthless “Dock Wallopers”). The workers mostly gave honest testimony, while the “Dock Wallopers,” mainly invoked their Fifth Amendment Rights not to incriminate themselves.

One of the men who was called in to testify at the Waterfront Hearings was a shady figure named William “Big Bill” McCormack. McCormack owned several businesses, including the U.S. Trucking Company, which worked extensively unloading on the Port of New York docks. McCormack was very close to Ryan, and it was alleged that Ryan and McCormack were, in fact, partners in several of McCormack’s businesses.

In 1950, as a result of pressure from the New York newspapers, Mayor Bill O’Dwyer, who was in the pocket of Ryan and other known gangsters, reluctantly called for a city investigation of the waterfront. The investigation became a sham, when Mayor O’Dwyer, at the urging of Joe Ryan, appointed McCormack as the chairman of a “blue-ribbon panel” to “investigate” waterfront activities. After month of a dubious investigations, funded by New York City taxpayer dollars, McCormack’s “blue-ribbon panel” concluded, “We have found that the labor situation on the waterfront of the Port of New York is generally satisfactory from the standpoint of the worker, the employer, the industry, and the government.”

That was obviously the “Big Lie.”

When McCormack was brought before the Waterfront Hearings, he was questioned about the previous testimony of the supervisor of employment for the division of parole. This supervisor had testified that although he had never met “Big Bill” McCormack, he had met with McCormack’s brother Harry many times. The purpose of these meetings was that on numerous occasions men, who were being released from prison on parole, would have the prison officials put in writing a note that said, “Mr. H.F. McCormack will make immediate arrangements for this inmate’s union membership upon his release.”

It was estimated that over 200 parolees were given “jobs” with McCormack’s Penn Stevedoring Company. Some of these jobs may have been legitimate dock work, but most ex-con’s employed by McCormack’s Penn Stevedoring Company were nothing more than thugs and leg breakers, and sometimes murderers for the union.

When “Big Bill” McCormack was asked at the Waterfront Hearings why he had employed so many men with dubious backgrounds, McCormack said, “It’s because I take a human view of employee problems. I’m human, and they’re human.”

Two of the “human” men employed by the McCormack Penn Stevedoring Company, after they were released from jail, were John “Cockeye” Dunn, and Andrew “Squint” Sheridan. Both men where eventually fried in the electric chair, after they were convicted of the murder of hiring stevedore Andy Hintz, while both killers were working for McCormack.

After McCormack’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission, the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “Mr. McCormack’s activities on behalf of the longshoreman’s union suggest that he has been pulling the strings for Joseph P. Ryan for many years, and may, in fact, be a more powerful figure on the waterfront than the Boss (Ryan) himself.”

Joseph P. Ryan was the 209th and final witness before the crime commission’s Waterfront Hearings. After one day of brutal cross examination, it was clear Ryan’s days were over as Joe “The Boss” of the Port of New York. Under grueling testimony, Ryan was forced to admit that he appointed many convicted felons like Harold Bowers to prominent positions in the ILA. Ryan claimed no knowledge of the fact that 30% of the union officials he personally appointed had criminal records. Ryan also testified he had no idea that more than 45 IRA Locals in the Port of New York kept no financial records, and that his hand-picked bosses had frequently given themselves raises, without these raises being ratified by the voting members of the Locals.

However, the final nail in Ryan’s coffin was inserted when it came to light that Ryan had misused more than $50,000 from the ILA’s Anti-Communist Fund for his own personal use. Instead of scouring the docks looking for communist activities, Ryan used this money for grand dinners for himself and his cronies at places like the Stork Club, repairs to his Cadillac, and to purchase the expensive clothes that Ryan wore. Ryan also had the gall to use Anti-Communist Funds to go on a cruise to Guatemala.

http://www.amazon.com/Mobsters-Gangs-Crooks-Creeps-ebook/dp/B006H99D1U/ref=zg_bs_11010_5

Still, Ryan would not give up his control of the New York Waterfront without a fight. In 1953, the American Federation of Labor decided to expel the ILA from it’s membership. AF of L President George Meany said, “We’ve given up all hope that the officers or members of that union will reform it. We’ve given up hope that the ILA will ever live up to the rules, standards, and ethics of a decent trade union.”

After hearing what Meany had to say, Ryan gritted his teeth and growled, “Then we’ll hold on to what we have.”

However, Ryan’s hubris lasted only for a short time. In order for Meany to allow the ILA to remain part of the American Federation of Labor, Meany insisted that Ryan step down from the post that Ryan had held for 26 years. Ryan had no choice but to comply.

Ryan’s travails were not over with yet. In 1954, after being convicted of violations of The Labor Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartly Act), Ryan was sentenced to 6 months in prison and a $2500 fine. Ryan appealed his conviction.

However, on July 1, 1955, the United States Court of Appeals Second Circuit denied Ryan’s appeal, saying, “Defendant-Appellant, Joseph P. Ryan, President of the International Longshoremen’s Association (hereafter called ILA) was indicted, on three counts, in that, on three separate occasions, he unlawfully, willfully and knowingly received sums in the aggregate of $2,500, from corporations employing members of the ILA. The judge, holding defendant guilty on all counts, sentenced him to imprisonment for six months on each count (the sentences to run concurrently) and fined him $2,500. As my view is not to prevail, I shall not discuss the other objections that the accused raises, except to say that I have considered them, and that they have not convinced me that any error was committed that would justify a reversal. I would affirm the conviction.”

Ryan did his six months in the can. Then he disappeared, never to be heard from on the waterfront again.

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8 Responses to “Joe Bruno on the Mob – Joseph P. Ryan – President of the International Longshoremen Association – Port of New York”

  1. My Father was a longshoreman on the cunard piers. All these guys you mention from Ryan to the pistol local were his friends. Most of them grew up in Chelsea where you went to work at 14 like my Father. Poor, you bet. My Father died of cancer at 39. Those guys you call thugs would do a collection every week so that he thought he was being paid by the shipping companys which by the way you had no sick time, paid vacations etc. No ship,no pay. Do you wonder why there were loan sharks? It was no picnic but I knowing them can’t think of them as thugs. Maybe if you walked in there shoes you would call them a different name. How about products of poverty?

    • Patricia, I grew up in the same type of neighborhood in Manhatan’s Little Italy, just a few miles southeast of the Chelsea piers. Many of them, including my uncle, worked on the piers in the Fish Market on South Street,

      I knew lots of poor people who never went bad like Ryan’s thugs did. Poverty is no excuse for being a thug.

      The vast majority of the dock workers were hard working guys, who were taken advantage of by the unions.

      Just a fact.

  2. michael Says:

    If anyone knows about Sonny Campbell, I would like to hear.

  3. Any one know anything about John B. Silke? He was a District Vice President of the ILA during the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s. There was an article written in praise of his efforts for the longshoremen in the Portland, Maine paper a few years ago. I lost my copy and have been unable to get another.

  4. McCormack was my father’s godfather and my father worked for McCormack at Transitmix for most of the 50s and 60s. My grandfather Robert Moran was a relation of McCormack’s through marriage and a business partner of his and Al Smith’s in United Sand and Gravel. My father described McCormack as having fists the size of hams and tells a story of McCormack’s brother Harry once punching out Gene Tunney in front of the 21 Club in an argument over Tunney’s wife.

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