- Seated by the Sea: The Maritime History of Portland, Maine, and its Irish Longshoremen by Michael C. Connolly, and:New York Longshoremen: Class and Power on the Docks by William J. Mello
Over the past generation, longshore labor has captured the attention of more than a few labor historians. The worlds of waterfront work—the organization of the labor process, ethnic and racial tensions, the impact of technology, political orientation, and the fortunes of trade unions—have been ably explored by scholars of the United States, as well as Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Case studies of numerous ports, here and abroad, reveal the heterogeneity of dockworkers’ experiences; the lives and labor of waterfront laborers can be reduced to no single formula. That conclusion is reinforced by two new books on maritime workers in Portland, Maine and New York.
Michael C. Connolly’s Seated by the Sea reconstructs the history of a group of overwhelmingly Irish dockworkers over the course of more than a century and a half. After replacing a small number of black dock workers in the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants, and later their sons, dominated Portland’s waterfront. A smaller number of Italian immigrants joined them by the early 20th century, and over time ethnic rivalry gave way to interethnic interaction. Like their counterparts in other ports, Portland dockworkers organized in self-defense. The Longshoremen’s Benevolent Society tackled issues of wages, labor conditions, and work rules with mixed success. The failure of several strikes before World War One led the Portland trade unionists to affiliate with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), bringing them into contact with dockers along the east coast and allowing for greater coordination and cooperation. The immediate postwar years represented the local union’s high point, with some 1,366 members in its ranks. Although their work remained “unpredictable, seasonal, and casual” (86), Portland longshoremen achieved a level of security that allowed them to provide their families with a needed “safety net” (184). [End Page 236]
The health of Portland’s maritime economy deteriorated by the 1930s. Heavily dependent upon the transshipment of Canadian grain—Portland was known as Montreal’s winter port—the city was economically vulnerable to developments north of the border. Improvements to port infrastructure in St. John and Halifax and belated attention to waterfront modernization in Portland contributed to a precipitous decline. “All of Portland’s eggs had been placed in one basket,” Connolly concludes, “and between 1923 and 1934 the bottom literally fell out” (150). The size of the dock labor force dropped as well, with subsequent technological developments, such as containerization, reducing yet further the need for labor. “The handwriting was on the wall for the longshoremen of Portland” (154). They survived, but never again would they – or waterfront commerce – contribute substantially to the city’s economy.
William J. Mello’s New York Longshoremen recounts a story far different than the one that unfolded on Portland’s docks. The size of the New York labor force dwarfed that of Portland; its labor force was ethnically and racially far more heterogeneous; and its trade unionists were considerably more militant than their northern counterparts. New York’s postwar waterfront laborers confronted corrupt union leaders, powerful and determined employers, and hostile city, state, and federal officials usually allied with business. The fundamental issue, Mello argues, was a straightforward one: Who controls the waterfront? Efforts by ILA officers, steamship agents, and government representatives to undermine or eliminate workers’ control generated a significant tradition of rank-and-file resistance that forms the book’s subject. Indeed, the ubiquity of labor discontent on the docks produced waves of wildcat strikes, slowdowns, and large-scale work stoppages that, time and again, brought to a halt the commerce of the nation’s largest port. Over time, employers’ strength and new technologies put workers on the defensive. Ultimately, the advent of automation and containerization...