Labor Noir: Murders and Funerals on the Brooklyn Waterfront

Labor Noir: Murders and Funerals on the Brooklyn Waterfront
Forrest Hylton, PhD
Northwestern University

Labor Noir: Murders and Funerals on the Brooklyn Waterfront

Introduction: Panto’s Ghost
From the second half of 1939 until early 1941, a daily ritual took place: on the walls of the Montague St. tunnel that descended to the Brooklyn waterfront piers along Furman St., someone from the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) wrote, “Where is Pete Panto?” On behalf of the leadership of Brooklyn’s six ILA locals—known as the Camarda locals, run by Emil Camarda and his family, as well as Vincent Mangano, Sr., and his family—the police erased it.
After work on July 14, 1939, having warned his fiancée, Alice Maffia, aged twenty, and her brother, Michael Maffia, that he was off to meet two people he “didn’t trust,” twenty-eight year-old Pietro Panto, a hiring boss for the Moore McCormack lines on Montague Street’s Pier 3, left the Maffia household on 11 North Elliott Place in Ft. Greene, across the street from the Navy Yard, and arrived at Gargiulo’s Funeral Home on 56 President St. in Red Hook at 7 PM, across the street from ILA headquarters at 33 President St. After a twenty-minute discussion with officials from the ILA locals Emil Camarda, Constantino “Gus” Scannavino (Vincent Mangano’s brother-in-law), and Anthony “Tony Spring” Romeo, Panto got into Romeo’s car, which sped off, followed by another car. When asked, one of the three would later boast, “He is where he will not bother anybody.”
In June 1939, as the leader of the Brooklyn ILA Rank-and-File Committee, Panto spoke to a crowd of some 800 at an open-air rally, at which he demanded a union hiring hall. Then, on July 3, 1939, he organized a rally against the ILA’s President, Joseph Ryan, that attracted over 1,000 longshoremen as well as notables like Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who represented the American Labor Party, which, by allying itself with Republicans in support of Fusion Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, helped break the Democratic monopoly of the Tammany machine on municipal politics, including the criminal justice system, while strengthening the hand of President Franklin Roosevelt and Governor Herbert Lehman. In addition to his public activities, in July 1939, Panto privately refused to pay the kickback of $10 per week (Panto earned $18-$20 per week) demanded by Gioaccino “Dandy Jack” Parisi through his lieutenants. Panto was instructed to see Parisi at his tailor shop on Sackett and Van Brunt.
Having ignored threats—or worse, responded with a smile—on July 13, 1939, Panto was driven out to Jimmy “Dirty Face” Ferraco’s house on a chicken farm in Lyndhurst, NJ. As the 5’5”, 166-pound Panto entered Ferraco’s house, he saw Albert Anastasia and Emmanuel “Mendy” Weiss, and sought to flee. Weiss grabbed him and put him in a chokehold. Nearly biting Weiss’s finger off, Panto fought valiantly, but was no match for the professional killer, who weighed some 200 pounds and strangled Panto. According to Weiss’s co-worker, Albert “Allie” Tannenbaum, when he met Weiss at the lake in Prospect Park one afternoon in July 1939, Tannenbaum asked, “What happened to you? Where did you get all those scratches? What did you did you do, fight with a girl?” Weiss replied, “We had a close one the other night,” and proceeded to narrate what happened:

“So he goes on the tell me that Ferraco, Anastasia, and himself were in a house waiting for somebody to bring some wop out there that they were supposed to kill and bury. He said, ‘The guy just stepped into the door and must have realized what it was about and he tried to get out. He almost got out. He said, ‘It’s a lucky thing I was there. If I wasn’t there he would have gotten away. I grabbed him and I mugged him, and when I mugged him, he started to fight and tried to break the mug, and that’s when he scratched me, but he didn’t get away.’ I said, ‘What’s it about?’ He said, ‘It’s Panto, some guy Albert had a lot of trouble with down on the waterfront and he was threatening to get Albert into a lot of trouble. He was threatening to expose the whole thing, and the only thing Albert could do was get rid of him. He tried all sorts of ways to win him over and quiet him down, but he couldn’t do anything with him. He had to kill him.’”

To mug, in criminal argot, meant to choke with one arm. Panto’s nemesis, Albert Anastasia, was from Calabria, like Anastasia’s close associate, “Dandy Jack” Parisi, and alleged to be the “Mr. Big” of the Brooklyn waterfront, although Vincent Mangano, Sr., was Anastasia’s boss as well as Parisi’s father-in-law. By 1931, Mangano had become the leader of one of New York’s five borgatas, or mafia families, and Emil Camarda the vice-president of the ILA, the East Coast’s largest and most politically powerful union. The two had known each other since boyhood in Palermo. Mangano owned the building at 367 Clinton St. that housed the City Democratic Club, founded in 1932 by Camarda, Mangano, and Anastasia, in order to bolster the Democratic political monopoly over the 3rd Assembly District.
Though he liked Panto personally, Camarda warned him about his efforts to mobilize longshoremen against the ILA leadership through the Rank-and-File Committee. Panto needed to stop organizing mass rallies: “The boys don’t like what you’re doing, so lay off.” Throughout the 1930s, with Parisi’s assistance, and subject to Mangano’s authority, Albert Anastasia supervised a team of assassins, mostly Jewish but also Italian, from Ocean Hill and Brownsville—men like “Mendy” Weiss, “Allie” Tannenbaum, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Louis Capone—that became known as Murder Inc., which was responsible for dozens of murders throughout the borough, the city, and the country, including Panto’s. On the basis of testimony from Reles, Tannenbaum, and other accomplices, New York police linked Anastasia to thirty murders, and held him responsible for perhaps thirty more. A number of these murders were planned under Anastasia’s direction at the City Democratic Club.
Thus Panto challenged organized crime’s monopoly of ILA union leadership and hiring, which began in the 1920s and was consolidated in the 1930s, but from the offices of the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee at 186 Remsen St., Panto also threatened the nearby City Democratic Club’s hold over voters, since Panto’s followers voted for LaGuardia. In responding to Panto, racketeers played to type, with anti-communism as their reason for being: “He’s a red, he’s a radical, he’ll get you and the union in trouble.” As Panto’s friend, Communist Party (CP) member, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizer, and longshoreman Sam Madell put it, “That was the primary weapon that they used—red-baiting.”
Mangano, Anastasia, Camarda and associates like “Dandy Jack” Parisi, “Gus” Scannavino, “Tony Spring” Romeo, and “Mendy” Weiss, cut terrifying figures, but instead of forcing rank-and-file longshoremen into silence, Panto’s disappearance galvanized his successor, Peter Mazzie, and the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee into further coalition building and campaigning. They could no longer convoke mass rallies as Panto had done, yet by lobbying politicians, mobilizing allies among the clergy and in the trade union movement, and cultivating journalists, they kept Panto’s murder from falling into oblivion of Brooklyn’s criminal justice system, which was intimately linked to its electoral machinery.
Fighting gangster rule over the ILA union leadership, the Democratic monopoly on longshoremen’s votes, and judicial impunity, in 1940 the Brooklyn ILA Rank-and-File Committee opened its own hiring hall on 175 Columbia St. Panto’s friend and comrade, Pete Mazzie, who was twenty-three that year, led the committee, which formed the Pete Panto Memorial Committee, located at 186 Remsen St., to pressure the King’s County District Attorney, William O’Dwyer, who took office in January 1940. The Memorial Committee, which also formed the Pete Panto Educational Circle, located at 255 Columbia St., included cultural figures like African American writer Richard Wright, key leaders from New York’s powerful trade union movement like City Councilman Mike Quill from the Transit Workers Union, which joined the CIO in 1937, and political heavyweights like Congressman Marcantonio and his mentor, Mayor LaGuardia, for whom the rank-and-file committee voted for on the American Labor Party ticket.
During the 1930s, through direct action, rank-and-file workers in the most important industries in the U.S.—autos, steel, rubber, electrical—expanded the scope of democratic ideology and practice by confronting corporations which, backed by private as well as police violence, ruled dictatorially. The period was uniquely radical in the context of twentieth-century U.S. labor and working-class history because of widespread demands for rank-and-file control of the immediate process of production, including hiring. Waterfront workers, seamen as well as longshoremen, on the East, West, and Gulf coasts were an integral part of this democratic movement for self-government, which represented a fundamental challenge to the managerial prerogatives and property rights of the most important U.S. corporations.
Harry Bridges formed the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousing Union (ILWU), and affiliated with the CIO, in 1937, coming out of the Great Strike of 1934, the year that Minneapolis and Toledo, as well as San Francisco, experienced general strikes. The ILWU and the CIO offered an alternative model to the ILA, in which workers democratized their union by exercising control over the labor process and hiring, and obtained higher wages, better benefits, and job security as a result. Panto appeared to be Brooklyn’s answer to Bridges and the ILWU, and if the fight for democracy within the unions could be won in the Brooklyn ILA locals, it could be won anywhere in the U.S. labor movement.
Rank-and-file struggles in the U.S. during the 1930s dramatically altered the relations between corporations, unions, and the state as these crystalized in patterns of collective bargaining, on the waterfront no less than elsewhere. Pete Panto’s leadership of rank-and-file struggles on the Brooklyn waterfront takes on its fullest significance against this broader fight to extend democracy to the process of production. At the high point of U.S. radicalism in the twentieth century, when, locally, Tammany-linked machines had lost some of their sway over voters, professional gamblers that backed Tammany had been convicted by Republican Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and the federal government had taken over patronage, funneling it through Mayor LaGuardia, Pete Panto led a campaign to control waterfront hiring and union representation that was backed by the CIO, the ILWU, the ALP, and the CP, which was then at its zenith in the U.S., and enjoyed a near-monopoly over the Left, nowhere more so than in New York. But perhaps the most novel element of all was the response of the federal government, which provided a new legal and regulatory framework to adjudicate industrial conflict and—under the National Industrial Recovery Act’s 7A clause—institutionalize new patterns of collective bargaining, allying itself with the CIO from 1935-37.
If there was an auspicious moment for democratizing the Brooklyn waterfront, this was it. How successful was rank-and-file mobilization, and what explains its limitations? Lacking more than rhetorical support, without sufficient resources or personnel, Panto and his followers, I argue, were isolated and vulnerable. Perhaps more importantly, Panto, who grew up in Sicily, was a newcomer to Red Hook, and could not draw on kinship networks comparable to those in which the Mafiosi were embedded, rooted in the neighborhood and its institutions: the Catholic Church, ILA locals, and the City Democratic Club. As long as shipping companies and the Democratic machine politicians they supported depended on Mafiosi to guarantee a profitable business climate and favorable electoral outcomes, only federal government action, in the form of law enforcement, could have broken the ties that bound licit and illicit economies to public corruption. But the New Deal defused rank-and-file radicalism, rather than empowering it.
Although mob control of waterfront union leadership remained ironclad through the 1970s, and ties to the Democratic Party were never broken, Pete Panto and Pete Mazzie’s struggle for democracy was neither ephemeral nor inconsequential. Nor was it forgotten. Over time, rank-and-file activism on the Brooklyn waterfront—particularly postwar strikes, but also union election campaigns—explicitly upheld Panto’s legacy, achieved partial victories, reduced the levels of violence against longshoremen, and coalesced into an oppositional current. It even pushed the union leadership to adopt progressive positions on civil rights and the Vietnam War, positioning the Brooklyn ILA on the Left of the labor movement.
The first section of this paper discusses historiography, theory, and method in the study of dockworkers and organized crime, and argues for the need to devote greater attention to the role of criminal brokers and intermediaries in shaping New York’s waterfront labor markets. It proffers working definitions and conceptualizations of terms such as mafia, racketeering, entrepreneurs of violence, and organized crime, and theorizes them in relation to class and state formation. The second section examines the political ecology of the Port of New York, charting the rise of the ILA in relationship to shipping companies, machine politics, religion, organized crime, and race-ethnicity, and provides capsule biographies of leading gangsters and racketeers. Section three narrates the Left challenge to racketeers and the gangster domination that preceded and followed Panto’s disappearance. It follows the development of the case against Panto’s killers and charts their fates, as well as that of their erstwhile prosecutor, during World War II.

Historiography, Theory, and Method
Until recently, U.S. labor and working-class historians ignored New York’s dockworkers, leaving them to industrial sociologists. However, monographs and book chapters have appeared that seek to understand the efforts of longshoremen to improve their lives and livelihoods, as well as the obstacles they faced. Focusing on race, ethnicity, and class formation, and the Irish in relation to Italians and African Americans, Winslow and Nelson, though they disagree fundamentally, have extended Thompsonian lines of inquiry about working-class culture, community, and consciousness, complicating Kimeldorf’s account of how the West Coast longshoremen became one of the most radical sectors of the U.S. working class, while the East Coast longshoremen were among the most conservative. In his comparative study of wildcat strikes in London and New York immediately after World War II, Davis has added to the foundation laid by Kimeldorf, Winslow, and Nelson, deepening our understanding of rank-and-file struggles against the ILA leadership. Similar to Nelson, Fisher concentrates largely on the making of the Irish waterfront, particularly the relation between Catholicism, Manhattan’s Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, Hudson County, NJ, and what Fisher calls an “intimacy with violence” linked to urban machine politics. Most recently, Mello has explained how class and power worked on New York’s docks after World War II, emphasizing rank-and-file organization and its relationship to law and state regulation.
What follows thus builds on recent scholarship on the New York waterfront, but delves more deeply into the social history of organized crime in Brooklyn before World War II, particularly the relationship between the ILA locals, the City Democratic Club, and machine politics in the 3rd Assembly District. It provides the fullest account of Panto’s murder, the struggle to bring his killers to justice, and the fight to democratize Brooklyn’s ILA locals. Without losing sight of rank-and-file efforts, it concentrates on gangsters and racketeers, who constituted the deadliest and most formidable obstacle to working-class self-activity. Gangsters and racketeers—like organized crime in general—have received even less attention from historians than dockworkers. Beginning with the investigations carried out by Republican Judge Samuel Seabury and Republican Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, under Democratic Governors Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman, organized crime and racketeering were considered major problems for city and state government in New York, and Panto’s disappearance brought attention to them. The state and federal waterfront investigations of the early 1950s—which pointed back to the events of the 1930s and 40s—led to widespread publicity, a rediscovery of Panto’s case, and had an impact on popular culture through films, novels, televised hearings, journalistic investigations, and radio broadcasts.
Why have U.S. historians ignored something so evidently central to the public culture and consciousness of the period? Perhaps journalists, social scientists, filmmakers, and television producers have cornered the market of representations of Italian organized crime, which is a thicket of cliché, stereotype, and falsehood. One of the few historical monographs on organized crime focuses on paranoid Cold War representations of gangsters as ethnic aliens working with each other in conspiratorial secrecy, corroding the fabric of democratic society from within, and thus analogous to Bolsheviks. This, indeed, was the dominant interpretation within both the executive and legislative branches of government, and it influenced Cold War criminology, much as its author, Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had hoped. It promoted xenophobic nationalism at the very moment when many Italian Americans became “white ethnic” citizens, conveniently overlooking domestic sources of mafia power in urban machine politics, where businessmen met politicians and their constituencies. Neither the executive nor U.S. Congress had any intention of putting Democratic mayors and governors on trial, or of convicting leaders of major corporations, so for the most part, links between official business and politics remained unexplored. The ties that bound waterfront crime to business and politics in webs of influence, patronage, and cleintelism never became part of public consciousness.
U.S. labor and working-class historians may have avoided studying the links between organized labor and organized crime, and between racketeering and the struggle to democratize mob-controlled unions, because conservative reaction against the New Deal first focused attention on them. Crusading journalists like Victor Riesel and Westbrook Pegler, not to mention politicians like Senators Estes Kefauver and Robert Kennedy, ignored relations between corporate leaders and organized crime, and between the latter and political machines, targeting corrupt union leaders instead. Anti-racketeering campaigns were the Trojan horse with which Cold Warriors of both parties attacked trade union power, which had already been fatally weakened by the restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 and the UAW contract of 1948, as well as the concomitant purge of Left-led unions from the CIO. Ideologically, in terms of de-legitimizing and discrediting organized labor in the public arena, and thus reducing its power in U.S. political and cultural life, the moral crusade against racketeering was central. Perhaps this Cold War history explains, at least partially, the reluctance of scholars to explore ties between U.S. labor and organized crime, which, as Lens noted fifty-five years ago, are unique in the industrialized world.
To ignore this history is to throw the baby out with the bath water, however, for without the sanction of shippers, stevedoring firms, and other corporate leaders, as well as machine politicians, gangsters would not have had room to maneuver in organized labor. In a volume on the global history of dockworkers, Cooper names gang leaders and foremen as ambiguous figures, arguing that labor historians have shown a marked preference for straightforward, heroic narratives of rank-and-file struggle against oppression. But that ambiguity hardly applies to racketeers and Mafiosi, who arise out of the working class and become entrepreneurs of violence by feeding off of it as intermediaries of labor power, which allows them to extort a variety of taxes from corporations and unions, ostensibly for services rendered. The trope most frequently used to describe racketeers is “parasitic,” which captures rather precisely the nature of their relationship to capitalist firms and labor unions, and “racketeering,” a term that became widespread beginning in the late 1920s, is best described as a system of organized extortion of labor unions in which employers collaborate with professional criminals. In his discussion of the term, Lens defined it as “the marriage of business unionism and crime,” and linked it to patterns of campaign finance and machine politics, noting that employers had first introduced private violence into the relationship between capital and labor.
Brokers of labor power exercising private violence in order to enforce local monopolies of protection cemented domination and exploitation, especially on the New York docks. Outside of U.S. port cities, gangsters and racketeers have only taken over the docks in Shanghai, but in New York, in addition to the waterfront, they plagued most every craft union and trade in the city: bread, cinder, cloth shrinking, clothing, construction, flower shops, the Fulton fish market, funeral, fur dressing, grape, hod carriers (manual cement haulers and mixers), ice, Kosher butchers, laundry, leather, live poultry, master barbers, milk, millinery, musicians, night patrol, neckwear, painters, plasterers, taxis, and window cleaners. Organized crime entrenched itself in labor unions not only in New York City, but nationwide. There is no analogue in the North or South Atlantic, or even the Mediterranean world.
Nothing lends itself to misconceptions and stereotypes like the term “mafia,” however, so how to define it? Here we concur with Salvatore Lupo, who argues that the mafia is best understood as the organization that protects a legally or constitutionally protected entity, the business enterprise, using violence—specifically, physical and verbal intimidation of thieves, traitors, witnesses, and competitors, up to and including homicide—to insure a monopoly on protection rents. The mafia privatizes and personalizes power, and disperses it through extended kinship networks that exercise micro-sovereignties over micro-territories by charging taxes on production, distribution, and consumption in their areas of influence.
The mafia presupposes a disorder beyond the reach of the state that it then promises to control privately, and is therefore in the business of organizing crime by regulating its violence in order to accumulate wealth and redistribute it among its members—without, of course, actually producing it. The mafia largely creates the insecurity it then regulates for a price, and in this way resembles a tributary principality founded on extortionate, rent-seeking activities, but one that must constantly obtain and distribute funds and goods to its clients/subjects. The mafia works more like a feudal state than a modern corporation, however, since in order to move up the hierarchy, capos must kill their bosses. In class terms, the mafia is a predatory, parasitic growth on production, transport, and distribution, but one that favors capital over labor in the absence of state sovereignty. Above all, Mafiosi are entrepreneurs of violence who desire private wealth and political influence, and they establish and police the boundaries between licit and illicit economies according to their own laws, which are those of the capitalist jungle.
Rather than representing a traditionalist holdover from the backward rural society of southern Italy, the mafia’s gambling, loansharking, and racketeering activities in New York replicated patterns of social ascent that the Irish and Jews established through relations with Tammany and the county Democratic machines, as well as capitalist firms. Here I echo arguments first put forth by the late Daniel Bell, who saw organized crime as a path to social mobility for immigrants, and glimpsed in it a pattern of ethnic succession that revealed how urban machine politics worked in the U.S. Southern Italian mobsters in the U.S. proved to be nothing if not modern, and were considerably more creative, adaptable, and entrepreneurial than traditionalists from “the other side,” as they called Italy. Nor were the Mafiosi anti-state: although they resisted and corrupted law enforcement, they were keen to establish partnerships with businessmen and politicians, and wanted nothing more than legitimacy and respect-- which they sought through private fortunes and public acts of “benevolence”—within the parameters of U.S. capitalism. The problem was how quickly law and political economy in the U.S., and thus the rules for entrepreneurs of violence poised between the licit and the illicit, changed between the 1930s and the 1950s. Who could keep up with the federal government’s rush to regulate urban spaces and economic sectors that lay outside of its sphere of sovereignty, defined by its legal and regulatory framework, for so long? Who could tell how far the campaign to extend state sovereignty would go?
A word about the restricted focus of this study: scholars agree that New York was highly fragmented and de-centralized—even the ILA leadership recognized that its reach did not extend across the East river—and unlike Manhattan’s West Side or Hoboken, NJ, historians have not studied Brooklyn. Apart from two monographs on African Americans and racial formation, there are no scholarly accounts of Brooklyn’s history in the twentieth century, even though it was the city’s most populous borough, with the largest volume of port traffic and industrial manufacturing.
That is not why I have chosen it, however. Rather, the Brooklyn waterfront was crucial to the formation of organized crime led by southern Italian immigrants, and Brooklyn’s unions and political clubs provided the vehicles through which gangsters and racketeers used dense webs of kinship, patronage, and clientelism to maintain power that lasted for the better part of the twentieth century. The story of corruption and murder on the Brooklyn waterfront is thus part of the story of how, thanks to longstanding hiring practices in the shipping industry and patterns of electoral politics, southern Italians attained political power in New York—following the precedent set by the Irish and Jews—where everyday life was defined by ethnicity, itself largely territorial, demarcated by neighborhoods that were also assembly districts. Italian families carved these districts in Brooklyn up among themselves, exercising micro-sovereignties over micro-territories. This mode of doing business severely weakened and corrupted unions, and made a mockery of their noblest and most cherished ideals. As a Kings County Grand Jury report noted, “The union leaders have…set up thirty-one [unions] in the New York City part of the port…. The net effect of this is to set up thirty-one semi-autonomous ‘delegates’ or officers who are in reality thirty-one petty kings and who in their own language are wont to describe themselves as ‘owning’ the thirty-one different piers.”
By examining unions, machines, and organized crime, we can see how Red Hook’s Italian longshoremen were embedded in concentric circles of political, economic, and cultural power during the 1930s and 40s. This is micro-history that does not ignore larger forces shaping the local, but uses a fine-grained lens to understand them in a framework that analyzes culture in relation to more material forms of power, such as violence and extortion, in time and space.

Working in the Port of New York: A Political Ecology
If you were a southern Italian man between the ages of 20 and 60, like two thirds of the men who worked on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1912—and half of those who worked on the entire New York waterfront in 1914—and if you lived in Red Hook, you probably woke up and walked to the corner of Columbia between Union and Carroll to “shape up” at 7:55 AM. In a “ritual enactment of the local social order” grounded in patterns of authority, hierarchy, and deference, you stood in a semi-circle with hundreds of others, ten to fifteen deep, to see who would be called for work and who would need to wait until the next shape-up at 12:55 PM, unless you were one of those fortunate enough to belong to a regular gang, which accounted for less than half of the city’s 40,000-60,000 longshoremen between 1914 and 1938, and were concentrated mainly on the piers of the foreign lines on the North River, far from Brooklyn. There would always be at least twice as many of you as were needed at one time—hence the term “casual labor”—along the 700 miles of shoreline and 350 miles of developed waterfront, including Hoboken, Chelsea, the West Village, and Hell’s Kitchen along the North River, and the stretch from Wallabout Bay to Bush Terminal in Brooklyn, as well as the piers along the East River, plus Port Richmond, Staten Island, and the Port of Newark. A total of some 300,000 people in two states—seamen, checkers and weighers, tugboat operators, truck drivers, rail and shipyard workers, freight handlers, longshoremen, coopers, clerks, marine carpenters—worked in the port’s economy.
Though you might curse the irregularity of the work, you would also find the wages irresistible compared to the available alternatives, and you would rely on the strength of overlapping networks of kin, ethnicity, and neighborhood characterized by trust, solidarity, and community, as well as exploitation and violence, to survive. Unless you were part of a minority current on the Left—the Socialists and the IWW through World War I, the Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s—you kept faith and attended mass regularly, belonged to the ILA, voted for Tammany politicians, and knew the value of loyalty, deference, obedience to established hierarchies, and especially silence. You did not talk to outsiders, since your life depended on it. Your church, your union, and your party not only followed patterns of racial-ethnic division of political power into assembly districts; they institutionalized them in the neighborhood. You paid part of your wages as tribute for the privilege of working, and whether you needed a loan or not, you probably borrowed from one of the loan sharks working the piers. When you did not have work, you may have gambled and passed time at one of the many bars near Columbia St. that were open all day. You lived in a world in which radical social change was demonized, and almost inconceivable.
When you had work, you loaded and unloaded 220- to 280-pound sacks of coffee, bananas, lumber, potatoes, and depended on cooperation, coordination, and communication with members of your gang, which varied between four and five for cotton and lumber to more than thirty for bananas, to survive one of the most dangerous working-class occupations, akin to mining or logging. To the extent that such a thing existed, a standard gang consisted of 21 men: 1 gang foreman, 4 deck men (2 winch operators, 1 hatch tender, 1 extra man to handle gear on deck); 8 men working in the hold; 8 men working on the dock. Even if you bucked the stereotype of the hard drinking, footloose longshoremen, and subjected yourself to the shape-up simply to support a family, you likely mastered a cult of toughness and hyper-masculinity to compensate for the danger, risk, uncertainty, and deprivation that were your daily bread. Technology was rudimentary, and unless you were fortunate—meaning related to the right people—you did not operate the winches, pulleys, or rigging, for deck jobs, like those in regular gangs, were reserved for the “self-styled pier aristocracy.” Instead, you and the men you worked with depended on teamwork, hooks, and slings to move cargoes of several tons into and out of the holds, or up and down gang planks, as fast as you were able. Injuries were common, as was death, along with gallows humor, expressed in a distinctive argot.
Profitability in shipping depended on relations between humans and nature, as these were undergirded by hierarchical social relations between people: hiring bosses supervised a system of casual labor that used the shape-up as a method of hiring designed to ameliorate the unpredictability of the winds, the tides, and the volume of trade. Hiring bosses or foremen decided whom to hire, when, and for how long, and the shape-up was the method that guaranteed the authority of these bosses in a masculine world characterized by insult, injury, and insecurity. Hiring bosses, in turn, answered to union officials, stevedoring firms, and shipping companies—everyone except the longshoremen. The structural oversupply of labor heightened individualistic competition, limiting collective solidarity among longshoremen across ethnic and racial lines, and strengthening the power and authority of the hiring boss and his associates. This made New York longshoremen among the most divided, oppressed, and exploited sectors of the U.S. working class.
Capital on the New York waterfront was as fragmented as labor. There were more than 100 steamship companies, 60 stevedoring firms, and 500 harbor craft in the Port of New York, and until the New York Shipping Association (NYSA) was founded 1931, there was no collective representation of shipping lines and stevedoring firms, which made for a dizzyingly complex, highly confusing world on the waterfront. Each firm had to negotiate hiring arrangements with hiring bosses on each individual pier on which it operated. Even once the NYSA had formed, it was unable to unify foreign shipping lines with the domestic coastwise trade.
How did New York get to be what one labor journalist called “a pirates’ nest” of gangsters and racketeers? In historical and comparative perspective, certainly, New York stands out due to the presence and persistence of racketeering, but it was not always so. Racketeering—where organized labor met politics and organized crime—cannot be understood except in relation to the Democratic Party, the Catholic Church, and the Irish path to political power. By 1860, New York had more people born in Ireland than any Irish city, and as late as the 1880, an estimated 90% of the city’s longshoremen were Irish. The Irish had the best jobs on the waterfront, as well as many of the worst, the closest ethnic and territorial ties to the ILA leadership, and the clearest links to political and social power, which translated into public office and private influence. In the first instance, then, the New York waterfront was Irish, and allied with the Catholic Church and Tammany Hall, which was based in wholesome masculine activities such as boxing, saloon-keeping, professional gambling and sports betting. Registered party members, who congregated in Tammany saloons, did not need to be citizens to vote for leaders in the basic territorial unit of New York City politics, the ward, which later became the assembly district. Ward bosses and district leaders helped elect judges, and lobbied for constituents in a web of favors, paperwork, bureaucratic and legal procedures, votes, and, crucially, reduced sentences and acquittals. Southern Italians on the Brooklyn waterfront inherited this world; they did not invent it.
Ironically, the quintessential symbol of machine politics in the U.S. began not as a vehicle for the assimilation of European immigrants into the Democratic Party, but for their exclusion, although by 1817, Irish Catholics had breached the fortress of nativism, winning predominance in positions of leadership. Tammany was “practically conceived in a tavern,” and continued to hold meetings in various taverns throughout lower Manhattan during the 19th century. Saloons and taverns served as nodal points of Tammany activity, particularly the election of ward bosses, but also for the organization of gambling and sport, boxing and horse racing in particular. This nexus provided a particularly wide berth for professional gamblers as well as entrepreneurs of violence.
In response to the rise of Tammany, the city’s WASP patricians, anchored in banking and trade, later in industry, made the Republican Party their vehicle for opposing it, but could not compete with Tammany’s coalition between the Irish Catholic bloc and Germans, the latter superseded by Jews anchored in the garment industry during the 1890s. This Irish-led ethnic immigrant coalition was the winning formula for electoral victory from 1874-94, and again from 1917-33, because Tammany, though corrupt, was competent, and supervised the building of bridges, tunnels, sewer systems, parks, and schools, along with 60,000 salaried jobs after 1898, when the five boroughs were unified. Tammany was also willing to fight anti-Semitism and endorse progressive reforms, since neither threatened the Irish monopoly of patronage jobs. Further, as Jewish radicals, rooted in Yiddish culture and fleeing the pogroms of 1903 and 1905, organized the Socialist Party, they pushed Tammany to the Left, and Tammany machine politicians Al Smith and Robert Wagner enacted social legislation.
The Catholic Church in New York, in contrast, was fiercely anti-socialist and later anti-communist, and in the 1930s it held aloft the banner of Generalisimo Franco and repudiated the New Deal as a slippery slope to Godless Communism. Loyalty, discipline, and obedience to hierarchy; a sense of humans as irremediably fallen; and man-the-repentant-sinner ruling over women and children; these values were learned in church. Active participation in and sponsorship of the Catholic Church strengthened the dominance of Irish gangsters, racketeers, and politicians who cemented control of the ILA in the 1920s, in opposition to socialism and communism. The Church did not challenge Tammany’s authority, but complemented it, and prominent clergy associated publicly with politicians as well as union leaders like Joseph P. Ryan, who ruled the ILA unchallenged between 1927 and 1953, and who served as the Chair of the AFL’s Central Trades and Labor Union Council between 1928-38, as well as the AFL’s Committee on Soviet Infiltration, from which Ryan embezzled liberally.
Before World War I, the ILA initiated a new era of collective bargaining, in which the union leadership negotiated with shippers and stevedores. Dick Butler and his partner, Paolo Vacarelli, alias “Paul Kelly,” leader of the Five Points Gang, were small-time criminals whose activities were protected by politicians for whom they provided vital services, and under their leadership, the ILA was ineffectual, but recognized by shippers as legitimate. It negotiated the first port-wide contract in 1916, in which a small wage increase was agreed on in the absence of discussion of hiring, safety, or job control. But in the aftermath of the 1919 strike, under Joe Ryan, the ILA became increasingly associated with organized crime in the shape of bootleggers and gamblers, and was synonymous with industrial racketeering and its corollaries: extortion, bribery, kickbacks, loansharking, and theft. In the 1920s, Ryan helped turn the ILA into a vehicle for advancing the interests of ship owners, stevedores, and—not least—ILA officials.
The waterfront was the crown jewel of industrial rackets, because unlike the garment or flour trucking industries, the Brooklyn waterfront rackets were localized in a specific geographic locale, and therefore connected to the 3rd AD leader, Thomas Cullen, and the Democratic Party. The Brooklyn waterfront “belonged” to the mafia family run by Vincent Mangano, Sr., and Albert Anastasia, and was administered on behalf of organized crime, the shipping companies, and the stevedoring firms through ILA locals, each of which was dominated by a particular family and its in-laws, who controlled a particular set of piers. Shipping lines and stevedoring firms were content to work with racketeers as part of the cost of maintaining a stable business climate, and a number of union officials also worked for stevedoring or shipping companies. Of all the industrial rackets, the waterfront was by far the most lucrative and stable, not only because of mafia domination of union locals, but also because of the ILA’s relationship to official politics through the City Democratic Club, founded in September 1932, by which time Emil Camarda had become general vice-president of the ILA.
Camarda helped Mangano and Anastasia found the CDC on Clinton and Degraw, and served as its first president, and he and his family were central to the formation of Brooklyn’s waterfront unions. In addition to Emil, there was his brother Anthony “Nino,” and “Nino’s” son, Anthony V.; there were cousins Anthony J. and his brother, Salvatore, who replaced Anthony J. as Financial Secretary of Local 327, after having been arrested for felonious assault and convicted of rape; there was Joseph, son of Anthony J., and business agent of Local 327, also arrested for felonious assault. Camarda knew Vincent Mangano “from the other side,” where they had been friends since boyhood. Born in Palermo in 1885, Camarda, who lived at 133 Steely St. in Windsor Terrace, joined ILA Local 338 in 1916 and became its vice-president in 1918; his father had helped organize it before the war. Of Camarda’s activities in the 1920s, we know very little, as he does not show up in the newspapers or the police files, as his criminal associates do, which suggests a possible division of labor, although Camarda was arrested for extortion in 1920.
The most remarkable aspect of the Brooklyn waterfront was the density and breadth of its kinship networks, and the ability of organized criminals to articulate these family ties with labor unions and electoral politics. We know little about Vincent Mangano, who was born in Palermo in 1888, came to the US in 1906, aged seventeen, and soon settled in Red Hook, where Vincent, Jr., grew up. At some point, Mangano, Sr., went into real estate, and bootlegging. Arrested in Cleveland on December 6, 1928, at a mob convention, Mangano was released on bail the following day. He was arrested three further times, once for assault and robbery. Vince Mangano, Sr., had Mangano, Jr., of course, and brother Phillip Mangano, arrested for homicide and as a suspicious person, who was the business agent of Local 903; brother Gerolimo; brother-in-law “Gus” Scannavino, the business agent for Local 1199; Mangano, Sr., and Scannavino’s nephew, Michael Cosenza, the business agent of 929; brother-in-law Anthony V. Camarda, who was Anthony “Nino” Camarda’s son and Emil Camarda’s nephew. In 1931, with the blessing of Lucky Luciano, New York’s first mobster among equals, Mangano Sr. took over what had been the Mineo family, which included underboss Albert Anastasia, who was the only non-Sicilian in the group.
Anastasia’s career shows how the division of labor in bootlegging and racketeering during the 1920s led to specialization, since Anastasia began as a professional killer working for bootleggers and became the head of the squad of professional killers: Murder Inc. Born Umberto Anastasio in Tropea, Reggio Calabria, in 1902, the third of twelve surviving children, Albert arrived in New York in 1917 as a seaman. After jumping ship, he worked as a longshoreman for two years until the strike of 1919. Anastasia’s police record in the 1920s and 30s, though extensive, provides no information about his beginnings as a gunman, though most likely he started out guarding trucks carrying beer and liquor into Brooklyn from Long Island for Frankie Yale (Uale), owner of the Harvard Inn at Coney Island (est. 1917), who was murdered in 1928, as well as Yale’s successor, Anthony “Little Augie Pisano” Carfano, who became a pioneer in horse racing, hotels, and hospitality in Miami and Havana.
Local connections from “the other side” shaped patterns of criminal association in Brooklyn: Anastasia, who lived at 387 Clinton St. during the 1920s and part of the 1930s, worked closely with Calabrians “Dandy Jack” Parisi, Mangano’s son-in-law, at 215 Sackett St., and Giuseppe “Jospeh” Florina, who lived on 187 Columbia St. Anastasia was first arrested with Florina in 1921 for the 1920 murder of George Terrillo at Tosca Garden, on the corner of Columbia and Union St. The conviction was overturned after the pair spent seven months in Sing Sing awaiting death. Anastasia was arrested again in 1922, then twice in 1923; for one of the latter arrests, he served two years on a weapons charge. In 1923, he was shot in the hip in late April while riding in Biagio Giordano’s Cadillac past the corner of Sackett and Henry. In addition to real estate, Giordano, who died in the sniper attack, was involved in bootlegging, and it appears that Giordano had Anastasia and Florina murder Vincenzo Busardo, “a dealer in barbers’ supplies,” on Columbia and Sackett on April 6, 1923, according to Busardo, who died after relating the incident to a detective. Florina and Anastasia were arrested and charged for the murder of Busardo, but no witnesses would come forward. Anastasia was arrested once in 1928, twice in 1932—the first time for homicide with an ice pick—and once again in 1933, for the murder of longshoreman Joseph Santora, for which he was acquitted, and yet again in 1936. Witnesses refused to come forward, changed their stories, or turned up dead. At some point, probably in the early 1930s but perhaps before, Anastasia became a pier superintendent on the Brooklyn waterfront. Besides brother Anthony “Tough Tony” Anastasio, Gerardo “Gerry” Anastasio was a business agent in Local 929; and Giuseppe “Joseph” Anastasio became a foreman for the JW McGrath Steamship Co. Although “Tough Tony” was in the US for less than a year in 1925 before being deported, this proved long enough for him to get arrested on murder charges, and he returned to the U.S. in 1929.
Albert Anastasia, Emil Camarda, and Vince Mangano acted as individual leaders, of course, but their primary identification may have been as leaders of clans. The Manganos, Camardas, and Anastasias shared power with at least three other families: the Giustras, the Mangiamelos, and the Eratos. As for the Mangiamelis, father Salvatore—arrested for felonious assault—was president of Local 338 and also worked as a foreman for Barber Lines, while sons Joseph and John were business agent and secretary, respectively. Brothers John and Vincent Erato ran Local 346. Tony Romeo was the business agent for Local 929, but Romeo’s nephew and cousin occupied the position at different times.
In addition to the unions, through their kinship networks, these families ran a political club that brought them into periodic contact with leading politicians of the city, state, and borough. The club explicitly formed to reinforce control of Representative Thomas Cullen in Democratic politics in Assembly District 3. Cullen, the son of a waterfront labor contractor who became one himself, before getting elected to the New York State Senate in 1899 and the U.S. Congress in 1918, served as leader of the 3rd A.D. from 1927-45.
Southern Italian Mafiosi needed their own political club because they had no other way to influence the city’s politics. Cullen’s political club, the 3rd Assembly District Regular Democratic Club, on Clinton and Kane—named for the previous Assemblyman, Joseph Kane, who had inducted Cullen into the political club when the latter was still a boy—was closed to Italians, and thus to most residents of the neighborhood, since Cullen’s club looked upward to the city’s Irish and WASP elite, rather than downward toward the poor Italian constituents of the district, the majority of whom were not citizens. Thus even if they could not represent themselves politically, Italian leaders of organized crime could influence municipal politics, especially in Brooklyn, and in exchange for votes and campaign funds, they could buy political protection in the courts and on the police force.
The City Democratic Club’s first annual reception illustrates the links between machine politics and organized crime, and was held at the Hotel St. George on 100 Henry St. on October 31, 1932, with guests including Lt. Gov. Lehman, former Mayor Jimmy Walker, and Kings County Leader John H. McCooey. On September 9, with Emil Camarda acting as president, the CDC held a dinner at 367 Clinton St., attended by the borough president, a municipal court justice, an assemblyman, an alderman, a magistrate, Assemblyman Cullen, as well as ILA President Joe Ryan. When Christmas came around, the CDC handed out 3,000 baskets, each with chicken, cans of tomatoes and peas, sugar, coffee, fruit, and candy, as well as “that most important item in an Italian neighborhood—macaroni and tomato paste.”
Through the CDC, leading figures in organized crime and waterfront racketeering combined electoral clientelism with charity and relief work, which allowed them to pose as benefactors of the community during the Great Depression. In 1934, Vince Mangano, Sr., whose occupation was listed as “realtor,” headed up the Christmas Basket Committee at the CDC, and declaring to the press, “We will not permit any family in our district to go without the makings of a Merry Christmas. Every basket will contain enough food for a Yuletide dinner for a large family, and toys for the youngsters, who naturally expect Santa to visit them.” Albert Anastasia assisted Mangano on the committee. The CDC was composed “for the most part of wealthy Italian American business and professional men of the 3rd AD.” Like Anastasia, Mangano, Sr., was a member of the Boosters’ Committee in 1936, which solicited small “donations” from the CDC’s 800 “members” to help pay for the Christmas baskets. Thus extortion and good works went hand-in-hand. Anastasia, who lived at 387 Clinton St., and Tony Romeo, of 2612 Quentin Rd., were charged with vagrancy in the run-up to 1936 elections, which police wished to keep free of their interference; Romeo was known to police as an “election-day slugger.”
The CDC also held rallies for its candidates, who rubbed shoulders publicly with the leading lights of organized crime in Brooklyn. In late October 1938, following a torchlight parade through the 3rd A.D., with over 100 cars and 500 red and green flares, as well as “stirring band music,” on “Candidates Night Rally,” heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey headlined, urging Governor Lehman’s re-election; Dempsey described the latter as “ a great credit to his race and country,” a phrase that illustrates the Irish-Jewish-Italian coalition that the CDC helped sustain. Assemblyman Cullen predicted that Brooklyn would deliver a 400,000-500,000-vote margin on victory for Lehman, while Dr. Vincent J. Longo, an executive member of the CDC, felt sure that because of the popularity of “progressive legislation,” victory belonged to the Democrats. Other speakers at the event included Kings County Judge William O’Dwyer, State Senator John Howard, and Assemblyman Michael Gillen; all courted the CDC in their bid to get elected.

Rank-and-File Resistance: The Popular Front and World War II
Those who feared the worst for Panto had been right. Following a hunt that lasted three weeks, the discovery of Pete Panto’s body on January 29, 1941, encased in lime along the banks of the Passaic River in Lyndhurst, NJ, was testament to the courage and tenacity of the Brooklyn ILA’s Rank-n-File Committee. Panto’s friend, comrade, and successor, Pete Mazzie, identified Panto’s body together with Panto’s fiancée, Alice Maffia, at the King’s County Morgue. At the time of disinterment, Panto’s legs were in jackknife position, tight against his spine, with a rope tying his hands, legs, and neck. Panto’s family was able to view his body at 5:30 PM on February 1, and on the wall of the Montague St. ramp, a new piece of graffiti appeared at around 7 PM: “Who Paid for Panto’s Murder?”
In assessing the consequences of the rank-and-file campaign to organize, mobilize, and democratize Brooklyn ILA locals in the 1930s and 40s, and thereby loosen the hold of gangsters over the ILA leadership, we should consider the strengths and limitations of the longshoremen’s key allies on the Left: the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the American Labor Party, the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union, and, last as well as least, the Communist Party. How did these organizations contribute to the struggle to democratize the Brooklyn waterfront? What difference did unions and parties of the Left make, and how important were their strategies and tactics?
The fight to democratize the Brooklyn waterfront was inseparable from the challenge that Harry Bridges and the ILWU represented, because having driven gangsters and racketeers from the West Coast docks with “Red Guards,” Bridges and the ILWU implemented job control through a union hiring hall and equitable rotation of work. Yet the West Coast example could not have caught fire in New York if not for the electrifying effect of Bridges’ visit to New York at the end of 1936 and again in the fall of 1937. During his first visit, which Joe Ryan had not authorized, Bridges, leader of the ILA’s Pacific District, spoke at a mass rally at Madison Square Garden, which was filled to capacity. He called for solidarity from East Coast longshoremen with East and Gulf Coast seamen, who had walked out in support of the 40,000 striking seamen on the West Coast—in defiance of Ryan, who called Bridges a “punk,” and organized paramilitary forces among longshoremen in order to fight on behalf of shipowners and stevedores. Bridges labeled Ryan a “shipowners’ agent and strikebreaker,” but did not devote resources or organizers to lead the ILA in New York.
In 1936-37, the CIO successfully capitalized on sit-downs in autos, rubber, and steel, “in one of the great bursts of working-class insurgency in American history” Its potential for growth in industrial sectors beyond the reach of AFL craft unions seemed limitless, but on the waterfront, the CIO’s strategy and tactics all but guaranteed failure against the AFL-affiliated ILA, at a time in which the CIO and the AFL were waging a violent, low-intensity civil war for members and jurisdiction. Bridges and the CIO’s National Maritime Union (NMU), formed in 1936, refused to commit to rank-and-file struggle within the ILA because as Communists, they were betting on a strategy of dual unionism: they would organize longshoremen into the newly formed NMU, and thereby drive the ILA and the AFL off the East and Gulf Coast docks.
This strategy, and the tactics associated with it, were imposed from above and outside with little regard for local conditions. CIO organizer and CP member Sam Madell, who worked on the docks, knew that the only way to break the monopoly of the ILA leadership was to challenge it from within, since longshoremen would close ranks against those perceived as outsiders. Indeed, one organizer who was sent to replace Madell—whose indiscipline and independence from the CP-CIO leadership were barely tolerated—was nearly beaten up when longshoremen took him for an agent provocateur.
Perhaps as important as Bridges and his message, then, or the support of the CIO and the CP, were the patient, judicious efforts of Madell, who, through his editorial work, lit the torch of rank-and-file resistance before Pete Panto arrived from Sicily and kept it alive through World War II. Madell, who faced intimidation, threats, and joblessness, contended not only with racketeers, but also with the ignorance and inflexibility of superiors in the CP and CIO, which Madell joined in 1935, when he began editing Shape-Up. Madell became head of the CIO’s East Coast organizing drive on the waterfront, and in 1936, sponsored action committees to run anti-Ryan candidates in elections. Although more than a dozen CIO organizers worked full-time for the NMU, Madell was alone. Nevertheless, by 1938, Madell and the ILA rank-and-file had devised a program. The most important demands were back pay—the recovery of kickbacks—and a union hiring hall, since an end to kickbacks and the shape-up would end gangster control.
Into this vortex stepped Pietro “Pete” Panto, who was born at 110 Sackett St. in 1910, but grew up in Messina, in eastern Sicily, where he completed 6th grade in 1925. Panto’s occupation was listed as “laborer,” and after serving in the light infantry of the Italian Army as a Private and Corporal from late 1931 to late 1933, he sailed from Messina for New York on March 4, 1934, to live with his father, Carmilo Panto, a plasterer, and his mother, Domenica Venuti. In 1937, Panto obtained a registration card as an Emergency Snow Laborer with the Department of Sanitation. He was not mentioned in connection with the waterfront until 1939. According to Madell:

“He was a newcomer to the waterfront…. Panto was a very dynamic person, a good speaker, in Italian, held a number of open meetings, and many responded, and the officials became kind of worried about the situation…. And one fine day, Panto disappears. After about a week or so, we felt that something was radically wrong. We went to the police, they were convinced he got into some sort of argument with his girlfriend.”

None of the available evidence suggests that Panto had romantic difficulties with his fiancée, who wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle asking for help in locating him. It is plausible that police invented the story in order to avoid investigating Panto’s disappearance.
Compared to the CIO, the CP, and the ILWU, the American Labor Party’s support for democratize the waterfront was more closely grounded in local conditions. Attorney Marcy Protter, active in ALP politics, was a crucial ally of Panto’s, and fought to bring Panto’s killers to justice. He chaired the Brooklyn-Queens Labor and Civic committee, formed in 1938, and composed chiefly of labor and religious leaders. Some months before Panto began to hold mass rallies in 1939, he visited Protter, explaining that “he wanted to get some degree of democracy” in the ILA, and had decided to form a committee to achieve it. Panto outlined the kinds of kickbacks to which longshoremen were subject: he paid monthly advances to a mobbed up barber for haircuts he did not receive; if he tried to get haircuts from said barber, he would never be hired again. He had to buy his grapes at exorbitant prices at a mobbed up store on President and Hicks in order to make wine. He had to buy tickets for the City Democratic Club ball, eight to ten thousand of which were “sold,” i.e. taken out of the longshoremen’s pay envelopes, even though the venue only held five hundred people. Protter agreed to act as legal counsel.
Together with Madell and Protter, during the first half of 1939, Panto’s group started out small, with private meetings, gradually working up to public meetings of several hundred, at which time the Rank-and-File Committee held mass rallies that aroused the ire of Emil Camarda and the boys of the Brooklyn waterfront. In early July, Panto visisted Protter at his office for a meeting of the guidance committee, and described the meeting with Emil Camarda. The guidance committee discussed the matter, and it was decided that Panto was in real danger, and so should not go anywhere alone; instead, he was to move around in groups whenever possible. Soon after, however, on July 15, 1939, Protter received a call from two committee members who feared Panto had been murdered. He then made a formal complaint with Mayor LaGuardia’s Commissioner of Investigations, William Herlands, which Herlands then sent to Assistant Attorney General John Harlan Amen, to whom Panto had appealed for protection. Amen, who was investigating waterfront rackets, had sent Panto to see police, and a week later he was gone.
In January 1940, William O’Dwyer took over as District Attorney for Kings County, and perhaps with the success of Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey and Assistant Attorney General Amen in mind, announced that he planned to prosecute organized crime and racketeering, despite the fact that, like his predecessor, he was elected with help from the City Democratic Club. Yet O’Dwyer was both ambitious and relatively independent of the Brooklyn Democratic machine, and in late March 1940, he staged his first major publicity coup after Abe Reles agreed to testify against his boss, Albert Anastasia.
Reles’ testimony made Murder, Inc. a household name, and explains the mechanisms of recruitment for assassins. Reles recalled loitering on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga in Brownsville sometime in 1932 when he received word from Louis Capone that Albert Anastasia wanted to see him the next morning at 9 AM at City Democratic Club headquarters, where Reles and several others, along with “Dandy Jack” Parisi, left to meet “Joe” Florina—Anastasia’s Calabrian partner in crime since 1920—in Newburgh, Long Island, at a farm with a dilapidated barn filled with what Reles described as “enough ammunition to fight a war,” along with rifles, pistols, and shotguns. Reles and others learned from Parisi how to shoot at different distances and angles.
Thanks to the testimony of Reles and others who followed, like Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, we know that Anastasia arranged meetings at the CDC to mediate disputes among gangs of extortionists as well as mastermind murders. Reles named seventeen killings during the 1930s for which Anastasia was directly responsible, either as murderer or supervisor, and claimed that “an unwritten law” came into effect around 1931, according to which no mob hits could be carried out without Anastasia’s permission. When not directly involved, Ansastasia selected the hitmen and helped with “mapping out plans for the execution.” Reles named “Dandy Jack” Parisi as Anastasia’s “ace trigger-man.” Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry Strauss, and Allie Tannebaum all worked for Anastasia in Murder, Inc.
These revelations came as a mixed blessing for Alice Maffia. In a meeting that began at 2 PM on March 28, 1940, and lasted for forty minutes, O’Dwyer stated to Brooklyn-Queens Labor and Citizens Committee—represented by Protter and fifteen others, such as Rev. Frank Williams, of the Brooklyn Church and Mission Federation’s social justice committee, as well as leaders from a dozen unions—that he would “deliver Peter Panto or what’s left of him.” Thereafter, Alice Maffia did not leave her house at 11 N. Elliott Place, and her mother forbid her to talk to anyone outside the family. That day, March 28, O’Dwyer handed down his first two indictments in the Murder-for-Hire ring.
Assistant Attorney General Amen’s investigations apparently encouraged O’Dwyer, for at the beginning of April, he sought Anastasia—said to have received between $35,000-$45,000 annually in kickbacks alone—and his old partner, Joe Florino, in connection with Panto’s murder. Needless to say, neither could be found; Anastasia was rumored to be in Calabria. Nor could Tony Romeo, whom O’Dwyer wished to question as well. Amen also wanted Anastasia for questioning, and subpoenaed Local 327’s books from Secretary Treasurer Anthony J. Camarda.
On May 1, 1940, O’Dwyer began his own investigation into the Camarda locals, which lasted for two weeks, after some 100 members and officials of the locals had given their testimony, and after Amen’s books had been turned over to O’Dwyer, who met with Emil Camarda and Joe Ryan in mid-May. All agreed that Ryan would revoke the charter of three of the Camarda locals (929, 903, and 346), and call for new elections in all six locals. But as Tony Giustra admitted under questioning, the books Amen gave O’Dwyer had been cooked to hide looting of the treasury; Tony Romeo was named as the most egregious thief of union funds. In the elections, held in late June, numbers were shuffled along with personnel, such that 328-1, 329-1, and 1199-1 replaced the old designations, and Vincent Mangano’s nephew took over from his brother as business agent of 903, while in 923, Tony Romeo’s cousin took over from him as business agent. On the instructions of O’Dwyer, on July 15, 1940, Assistant D.A. Edward A. Heffernan declared the investigation concluded, and reforms satisfactorily implemented.
Following Panto’s disappearance and the end of its investigation, violence against union activists continued, but did not prove lethal. In the context of a wartime speedup caused by Brooklyn’s dependence on foreign shipping—in the words of the leader of the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee, Pete Mazzie, “We used to unload 450 bags an hour, now the men unload between 900 and 950 bags each hour,” yet 1,500 fewer men were working than usual—beatings became commonplace. At a meeting in the auditorium of St. Steven’s Church on Summit and Hicks, on June 12, 1940, one of Emil Camarda’s relatives grabbed Mazzie by the throat when he tried to debate Joe Ryan about the proposed merger of Locals 346 and 1199, and the four detectives assigned to the meeting then threw Mazzie out. That month, at a meeting of the Rank-n-File Committee, Johnny Erato, a delegate from Local 929, declared that Panto “was misled by the wrong guys. If he had listened to the right guys nothing would have happened to him. If he’d been smart, Pete Panto wouldn’t have got his.” Mary Testa, a reporter from the Italian-language Communist daily L’Unitá, who was close to Congressman Marcantonio and served on the Pete Panto Memorial Committee, reported Erato’s comments to District Attorney O’Dwyer, to no effect: O’Dwyer neither responded nor called Erato in for questioning.
For longshoremen seeking to carry on Panto’s struggle in the future, public acts of commemoration proved important. In July 1940, Mazzie led two hundred longshoremen at a meeting at the V.F.W. Hall on 335 Union St. to commemorate the first anniversary of Panto’s disappearance, stating, “His reputation will grow with the years and, when the longshoremen triumph in the ILA, that day will be the cornerstone of his living memorial.” Congressman Vito Marcantonio, honorary chairmen of the Pete Panto Educational Circle, was there, and urged the longshoremen to continue to fight to rid the docks of what he called “racketeers, bloodsuckers, and murderers.”
Mazzie suffered further beatings, and soldiered on. In mid-September, Mazzie was attacked by three unknown assailants at 1 A.M., and saved by the insistent screams of a woman who witnessed the beating. Throughout August and September 1940, Mazzie demanded that Ryan and Camarda incorporate insurgent demands—elimination of the shape-up, a minimum of twenty men to a gang and a maximum sling load of 2,000 lbs.—and threatened to negotiate directly with ship-owners. In October 1940, Amen put our a nine-state alarm for Anastasia—“reputed to be the front man for Vincent Mangano”—who was wanted in connection with the kidnapping of Isadore “I Paid Plenty” Juffe, who had identified Anastasia as his kidnapper.
In response to the challenge for control of hiring and the process of production, gangsters broke up rank-and-file meetings and prevented democratic discussion using violence. In mid-October 1940, for example, at a meeting of 350 men at the ILA Rank-n-File’s long, low-ceilinged headquarters at 175 Columbia St., which was to serve as a rotary hiring hall, Mazzie opened by saying, “This is the opening of a headquarters where longshoremen can meet and talk. The rank-and-file committee is taking up where Panto left off.” When he warned “phonies,” someone in the front row —either Nino Camarda, Johnny Erato, or Gus Caminiti (Tony Romeo’s cousin)—stood up, hit him with a right to the jaw, and someone else smashed a chair over his head, as a melee broke out that reduced the meeting’s ranks by one third in the ensuing half hour, before squads from the Hamilton Ave. and Butler St. stations could arrive, too late to prevent the destruction of the camera used by PM’s photographer, who received a punch in the jaw, but retrieved the film and printed pictures of Mazzie’s attackers. The meeting continued with two thirds of attendees staying on until 9:30 PM to discuss the signing, by Camarda and Ryan, of a new deep-sea agreement without prior consultation with the rank-and-file.
Neither the DA’s office nor the police protected Mazzie and the movement he led. While Mazzie’s requests for police protection fell on deaf ears, he received threats from Jonny Erato’s brother, Vince. In response, the Pete Panto Memorial Committee issued a statement to Mayor O’Dwyer, asking why Panto’s case had not been solved, labeling the attack on Mazzie the work of “gangster hoodlums tied to the Camarda machine…imperiling the lives and safety of honest workers and their families.” The Committee called on O’Dwyer to clean up the waterfront and to put Panto’s killer behind bars, and met with him, only to find that he knew who the killers were but would not say. He promised police protection, but delayed acting on the assault charges Mazzie had brought against Erato, Camarda, and Caminiti, who were acquitted.
Undaunted, Mazzie appealed to Mayor LaGuardia and held more public meetings in which he called for the overthrow of the ILA leadership. In early November, Mazzie reminded LaGuardia, whom the Rank-n-File endorsed for re-election, that the investigations against Murder, Inc., all of which pointed to the Brooklyn waterfront, had not cleared up Panto’s case, and warned that a “clash of some kind” was imminent unless the mayor intervened. The letter stressed the connections between racketeers and officials in city government, and blamed the shape-up system of hiring for the continued stranglehold of gangsters over the waterfront.
Though justice for Panto was never served, after the discovery of his body in late January 1941, his memory was honored. In mid-April 1941, a mile-long procession passed through Red Hook, where a crowd of thousands lined the sidewalks with heads bowed, as fifty members of the Rank-and-File Committee, holding aloft a large portrait of Panto flanked with flowers, led the mourners to the Royal Church of the Sacred Heart on Hicks and DeGraw. Several hundred assembled on the corner of President and Columbia streets, in front of ILA headquarters. In a prepared statement, the committee declared:

“In the death of Peter Panto, organized labor has lost a great and courageous leader. He was murdered because he led the fight on the Brooklyn docks for better working conditions. In his death, the Italian people lost a son who symbolized the best traditions of the workers. Peter Panto lives in the hearts of thousands of longshoremen who are determined that the things he lived and died for shall come to pass.”

In short, the committee vowed to fight on.
As the US headed toward world war, however, justice was in short supply, especially in the cauldron of New York City’s electoral politics, where District Attorney O’Dwyer demanded votes in the mayoral race in exchange for cracking the Panto case. Sometime in the summer or fall of 1941, Marcy Protter had another meeting with O’Dwyer, at which the latter assured the former that the Panto case was nearly solved, and almost unbeatable, but while O’Dwyer had identified the people who took Panto, the car they took him, and the car that followed from President St., he could not confirm that the same cars had arrived in New Jersey. O’Dwyer asked Protter for help, and asked if he could get American Labor Party support for the mayoral race against LaGuardia. Protter thought it unlikely, but O’Dwyer said:

“I have a plan…. I’m ready to call in reporters next Monday afternoon and tell that I am ready to break the Panto case, and I would like to have you here and stand here beside me when I tell it to the reporters, and I will turn to them and say, ‘This is the man who helped me break this case.’”

Unless Protter was lying under oath, it seems that O’Dwyer offered to make the former’s professional career into a political one—in exchange for ALP votes. Protter refused on principle, and O’Dwyer lost to LaGuardia, not because he failed to win the Italian vote, which turned against LaGuardia after LaGuardia finally criticized Mussolini and fascism publicly in 1940. The state’s case against Anastasia and his associates collapsed in November 1941 after Abe Reles famously “fell” to his death at the Half Moon Inn at Coney Island, despite—or because of— protection from six policemen, who were allegedly sleeping at the time of Reles’ death, which was investigated, but never clarified. Other witnesses, like “Pittsburgh Phil” and “Allie” Tannenbaum, had been electrocuted in Sing Sing.
Although the case against Anastasia and his associates was dropped, two of those involved in Panto’s murder did not long survive him, for Emil Camarda and Tony Romeo were themselves murdered in the span of less than a year, in October 1941 and June 1942, respectively. Camarda’s murder was as sudden and unexpected as it was brutal, and speaks to the difficulty of regulating informal hiring and payment arrangements between union leaders and stevedores. At 4 PM on October 2, 1941, Salvatore Sabbatino, vice-president of the stevedoring firm Sabbatino & Co.—and brother of City Court Justice Sylvester Sabbatino, a friend of the City Democratic Club—shot Emil Camarda twice in the face and once in the thigh with a .38 revolver in the former’s office. The murder followed on the heels of a drunken argument at Eberling’s Bar, in which Sabbatino reprimanded Camarda—according to an eyewitness, he said, “Why do you put all those Irish to work? Why can’t you make room for some Italians?”—after Camarda discovered that Sabbatino had tried to short workers on hours and pay. When a reporter called Local 1199 for comment at 7 President St., Emil’s brother John answered, “Did he get away? We’ll get him first. He killed my brother, didn’t he?” In the event, Sabbatino pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, was sentenced to do five to ten years in Sing Sing, and Camarda’s widow, Louise, sued him for $100,000. Camarda’s funeral was a minor affair compared to Panto’s: it attracted some 600 mourners, as opposed to the thousands who turned out for Panto, and featured a mere 20 flower-laden cars, with 50 cars of mourners, which followed the hearse from the Fairchild Sons Chapel at 86 Lefferts Place to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Ft. Hamilton Parkway and E. 4th, in Windsor Terrace. Camarda was buried in Flatbush at the Holy Cross Cemetery.
In mid-May 1942, police picked up Tony Romeo on Columbia St. on a vagrancy charge, and he told them he had been warned to stay away Brooklyn waterfront. Soon after, Romeo went missing after telling his wife that he was leaving on a business trip (to a racetrack), and Romeo’s clothes were found on June 17. At the end of June, his body was found disrobed, partially decomposed, with a broken jaw, and marked by twenty-eight bullets, in a patch of woods in Newcastle, DE, outside Wilmington, just a month after O’Dwyer left the DA’s office for the army.
Tony Romeo appears to have been one of those characters whose death comes as a relief to many. A delegate in Local 929, he had been arrested eight times—three times for homicide, twice for vagrancy—and convicted once. Anastasia and Romeo were arrested together for the 1932 murder of longshoremen Joseph Santora, who refused to pay kickbacks, but the former was released and the latter indicted but acquitted. Romeo had been sought for questioning in connection with O’Dwyer’s investigation of the Panto killing since May 1940. He was alleged by O’Dwyer to have received $75/week as a union delegate, plus $400-$500 per month from kickbacks. Police suspected his own people murdered him for hanging around Brooklyn.
In 1932, Romeo, who listed his occupation as a delegate of the longshoremen’s union, was arrested in connection with a murder, and sustained the following exchange with Assistant Chief Inspector John Sullivan:
“What happened to the man whose place you took?”
“He was shot and killed.”
“And what happened to the man whose place he took?”
“He was shot and killed.”
“Well, what do you think is going to happen to you?”
“I don’t know.”
Romeo’s wife, Josephine, told Wilmington police, “I guess he got what was coming to him. I’m glad it’s over. I’ve been slipping in and out of morgues for two years now, always expecting to find his body when police called me.” As far as we know, no one attended Romeo’s funeral.
With the war on, and all witnesses to the murder of Panto dead except Parisi, who was a fugitive, Albert Anastasia was above suspicion, though he had been a fugitive until enlisting in the U.S. Army in early 1942. O’Dwyer’s assistant, County Clerk James Moran, pulled Anastasia’s arrest warrant on May 4, 1942, along with the warrants for Jimmy “Dirty Face” Ferraco, Vince Mangano, and Tony Romeo.
In 1942, when Attorney Marcy Protter, still working on behalf of the Pete Panto Memorial Committee, went to see Moran about the issue of dues collected from one ILA local that had never been entered in the books, Moran told him that he could only do something about that on the orders of Joe Ryan. Thus Ryan was firmly in charge of the New York waterfront during World War II, as the CP and the CIO backed Roosevelt and the no-strike pledge unconditionally, and, lacking support on the Left, the wildcats that broke out in 1942 year petered out. When Brooklyn rank-and-file activists met with the CP’s waterfront leader in 1943, they were discouraged from bucking Ryan.
The boys of the Brooklyn waterfront who had survived went legit—or so it must have seemed at the time. In early January 1943, Albert Anastasia became a technical sergeant in Indiantown Gap, PA, until his discharge for being overage on December 5, 1944, by which time he had become a U.S. citizen. During the war, he could be seen in uniform at Belmont, the Jamaica racetrack or the Aqueduct, laying down $100 bills, up to six in one race.
Though O’Dwyer lost in 1941, his strategy worked in 1945, by which time he had become a war hero in Italy, and again in 1949. But Mayor O’Dwyer’s ties to Panto’s killers, chiefly Anastasia, resurfaced in the Kings County District Attorney’s race in 1945, after Republican District Attorney George Beldock revived the case and secured permission to open a Grand Jury investigation, which concluded that O’Dwyer’s office had been grossly negligent to let Anastasia go. Although Beldock lost the race, his successor, Miles McDonald, continued what Beldock started, which led to another Grand Jury investigation in 1949. The following year, O’Dwyer resigned to become Ambassador to Mexico, but the accusations would destroy his political career on national television in 1951 during the Kefauver hearings on organized crime and interstate commerce, which functioned as a morality play, with O’Dwyer cast in the role of scapegoat for Tammany’s sins of commission.
When asked during those hearings about his occupation during the years between 1919 and 1942, Albert Anastasia took the fifth. Senator Tobey (R-NH) explained that he could not incriminate himself by answering the question about legitimate business. Anastasia replied, “I don’t recall any legitimate business that I had.” Special Counsel Halley then attempted to shame Anastasia: “The fact is that you didn’t have any. Isn’t that the fact? Isn’t it the fact that you just didn’t have a job?” Anastasia replied, “In those years, I don’t remember. I was around the racetrack occasionally. I don’t remember if I had any legitimate business or not.” Six years later, Anastasia, who had moved from Brooklyn to Ft. Lee, N.J., was murdered in a barber chair at Manhattan’s Park Sheraton hotel, but by then his brother, “Tough Tony,” had taken over the Brooklyn waterfront.

Pete Panto is today a forgotten hero of the Italian working class in the U.S., but his case received considerable publicity at distinct conjunctures, and became a political lightning rod at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Few working-class martyrs were more deeply embedded in U.S. popular culture during the Cold War, as Panto’s murder was represented in a movie (Murder Inc., introducing Peter Falk as Abe Reles, in 1960), two novels (A Funeral for Sabella, by Robert Travers, in 1952, and The Raw Edge, by Benjamin Appel, in 1958), and two plays (Brooklyn, U.S.A., by John Bright and Asa Bordages, in 1941, and The Hook, by Arthur Miller, in 1951). This essay provides the context for understanding the explosion of rank-n-file militancy in that period, as well as the partial victories thereby achieved. Though gangsters remained in charge of the Brooklyn ILA locals, in the early Cold War, the federal government imposed a new legal and regulatory framework that disappeared the demand for workers control of the labor process and hiring, but ended the shape-up.
The period leading up to and following Pete Panto’s murder represented a high point of the democratic struggle to stop waterfront racketeers like the Anastasia brothers, the Camardas, the Manganos, and to sever ties between longshoremen and the Democratic Party machine. Following the entry of the US into World War II, the rank-and-file in Brooklyn’s six locals found themselves on their own in their struggle for justice. In addition to funneling votes to Roosevelt’s re-election campaign, the CIO leadership dampened rank-and-file militancy, pushed Communists out of local leadership positions, and shifted the focus away from demands for workers’ control of production and sit down strikes toward negotiated settlements. Once Germany invaded Russia, the CP signed on to speedup, piecework, the no-strike pledge, and U.S. nationalism, while helping the CIO leadership turn the American Labor Party into a dependent appendage of the Democratic Party.
With the war over, the first waterfront strike since 1919 erupted as part of a nationwide upsurge in 1945, and again in 1948, by which time the state regulatory system first established with the Wagner laws was consolidated with Taft-Hartley and the UAW contract with General Motors. The existence of a legal and regulatory framework for adjudicating conflict on the waterfront marked the postwar period from the interwar period.
In the face of rank-and-file’s resort to direct action—yet another strike broke out in 1951—federal and state governments moved to investigate and prosecute union leaders with ties to organized crime and corrupt political machines, and succeeded in taking the initiative for fighting racketeering out of the hands of an insurgent rank-and-file. Yet the rank-and-file movements of the 1930s and early 1940s, which brought the federal government into their conflict against shipping and stevedoring companies, union officials, and machine politicians after World War II, did not disappear with the establishment of the bi-State Waterfront Commission in 1953. Rather, they lived on in a much less violent context, and in the name of Panto’s struggle, these movements consistently pressured the corrupt union leadership to take progressive positions on civil rights and U.S. foreign policy, which, in line with the liberal Democratic candidates it backed, it did.
The rank-and-file could not overthrow the gangster leadership in the 1930s and early 1940s because of the strength of longstanding patterns of campaign finance, patronage, and electoral clientelism within the Democratic Party, and second, because shipping companies favored mafiosos over democratic trade unions on the docks for the simple reason that they preferred the shape up and casual labor to the union hiring hall. The former gave them, as well as the criminal intermediaries of immigrant dock labor, control over hiring, whereas the latter would have left that power in the hands of the longshoremen themselves. For shipping and stevedoring companies, which had excellent relations with Democratic machine politicians, the choice was simple. At no point did they have to worry about prosecution at the hands of the federal government.