General corruption long proliferated along the waterfronts of most major American ports. Mafia gangsters, first successful in the rackets in New Orleans, ultimately made their biggest push on the New York–New Jersey docks, the country's largest and richest port area. Throughout the 19th century the docks had been the domain of Irish gangsters, but early in the 20th century warfare was almost constant between Irish and Italian gangs for dominance.
The flood of Italian immigrants had altered the situation and forced the Irish to battle what they called the "dago invasion." But no matter which ethnic group maintained control of the waterfront, "service" was the same for customers trying to do business—they always had to pay.
Slowly the Italians, under Paul Kelly (Paolo Vacarelli) and later under Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis and Vince Mangano, gained dominance over the Irish. By 1925 with the murder of Pegleg Lonergan, the last important leader of the Irish White Hand Gang (hit in person, by no less a personage than a visiting Al Capone from Chicago), the Italian gangsters won the docks.
Joseph Ryan, president of the International Longshoremen's Association and with important connections in Tammany Hall, put the union's shakedown operations on an organized basis. Anastasia, Mangano, his crime family head, and Adonis, the payoff man for Brooklyn politicians and police, solidified the underworld's lock on the docks.
Shippers had to pay if they wished to guarantee their goods would be loaded or unloaded. Thefts of cargo ran into six figures monthly. Workers were bled for kickbacks to "hiring bosses" who decided who would work each day at dock "shape-ups." They were even billed monthly at a set fee for using a mob barber for haircuts, whether they got the cutting there or elsewhere.
Loan-sharking became a way of life on the waterfront, and new workers were guided to syndicate agents working inside the union. Since the dockworker's occupation was seasonal, shylocking thrived. The loan sharks demanded a dockworker turn over his pay card as security. The worker had to present his pay card to collect his wages.
In such cases the shylocks collected the wages and took out their interest before giving the hand the rest of his money. In a typical case a longshoreman borrowed $100 and for the next 36 weeks had $10 a week taken from his pay. "You," he was advised, "have only paid the interest up to now. You still owe the hundred." Hundreds of New York dockworkers were in the same boat.
By the late 1930s Anastasia and his brother Tough Tony Anastasio directly controlled six ILA locals in Brooklyn. One insurgent who dared to challenge their hold disappeared, his body turning up a year later in an Ohio lime pit. Another, Peter Panto, was taken for a ride, strangled and his body buried in a mob chicken-yard graveyard in New Jersey.
The mob was frightened by no one in attempting to extract tribute. The New York Daily News in 1948 was harassed by a picket line set up around a ship from Canada bringing in newsprint. The pickets demanded $100,000 in tribute, and failing that, one dollar a ton on all newsprint shipped in. Since the newspaper at the time used 300,000 tons, the cost would have been significant. The newspaper broke the scheme by sending the ship to Philadelphia and then having the cargo shipped by freight to New York.
Vigorous prosecutions and reform and finally the death of Albert Anastasia in 1957 and his brother Tough Tony in 1963 brought some improvement to the docks. The eventual rise to power of Anthony M. Scotto, a young college-educated relative by marriage to Tony Anastasio, was said to represent the dawning of a new era on the waterfront under a "new breed labor leader."
However, in 1979 it was found that conditions had not changed all that much on the waterfront. Scotto, despite character-witness testimony from the governor and two New York City ex-mayors, was convicted on labor racketeering charges.