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A passion for justice

New book recounts the life and times of the Irish-born, quintessentially New York activist, politician, and lawyer


Democratic politician, civil rights champion and social agitator Paul O’Dwyer — with his white pompadour, thick eyebrows, and soft Irish brogue — became a well-known New York civil rights lawyer through much of the 20th century, particularly as the insurgent Democratic anti-war U.S. Senate candidate in 1968 and as an advocate for Irish nationalist interests. 

In “An Irish Passion for Justice: The Life of Rebel New York Attorney Paul O’Dwyer” (published May 15 by Cornell University Press), Robert Polner and Michael Tubridy explain the origins and challenges of a news-making progressive who went into court for labor, including high-profile cases involving municipal strikes, deportation orders, and workers’ compensation. 

The following excerpt from Polner’s and Tubridy’s book recounts how the younger O’Dwyer came to join the International Longshoremen's Association in his formative years — an experience important enough that he carried his union card for the rest of his life. 

Second-class passenger 

With help from his brother Jack, Paul got into the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and landed a job as a cargo checker at Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal; this required he report early each morning to a loading boss. The work consisted of calculating the correct weight of cargo, inspecting the shipments, and helping ensure that the huge crates were stacked safely. It left the heavy lifting to others on one of the busiest and most lucrative harbors in the world. Stretching hundreds of miles along the city’s industrial shoreline, the Port of New York and New Jersey’s bustling piers extended like thick fingers into the heavily trafficked waters off poor and working-class Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods. During the first half of the twentieth century, before the advent of a full-service aviation industry and interstate highway system, more than half of all goods bound for the American interior traveled through the port. While in the nineteenth century the workforce had been predominantly made up of Irish immigrants, it was more diverse when Paul showed up, including immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Scandinavia and African Americans. Some of the early hazards of the work had been ameliorated by mechanized cranes. 

Some union locals, including Paul’s Checkers Local 975, were democratically run, allowing longshoremen to elect their representatives honestly, Paul later remembered, but the Brooklyn waterfront of 1926–30 — his tenure on the loading docks — was on the whole “highly racketeered.” Pilferage flourished, with gangster enforcers and Tammany district leaders taking their illicit cut on every dock. Paul recalled one such scheme: the hiring of three-or four-day laborers fewer than the contractually required nineteen men per hatch. A hiring boss, he said, pocketed the missing men’s pay.  

Local Democratic politicians saw no reason to interfere with the day-to- day corruption, that is if they hoped to get ILA members’ votes and the union’s financial support. Shippers, too, benefited from leaving well enough alone, assured of minimal work stoppages and of keeping their labor costs down through the collusion of ILA loading bosses and union honchos. As for the dockworkers, they remained dependent on this system for a day’s wage and were never heard questioning dangerous conditions or pressing their union chapters for job security. Outsider reformers who voiced concerns about the health and welfare of longshoremen were often viewed as suspect by the workforce and were as rare as dissident insiders.  

On his very first day inside the block-long Pier 3 shed, Paul was handed a copy of management’s book of rules by his Italian supervisor. Workers advised him to take its dos and don’ts with a grain of salt. He did not heed this advice, however. Instead he called attention to a few minor violations of the union contract as a newly minted member of the Local 975 of the ILA. The act of whistleblowing landed him on the wrong side of the supervisor. While his transgression was overlooked, it confirmed for Paul the symbiotic relationship that prevailed between the loaders’ union bosses and the shipping and stevedore companies.  

It also was clear that kickbacks were not occasional but every day. Payments were extracted from almost everyone who encountered the ILA — for example, the truck drivers who wanted goods loaded or unloaded without costly delays. Like almost everyone else, Paul did learn, eventually, to keep his mouth shut, realizing that nothing would be done in response to the filing of a grievance and that bucking the routine arrangements could be fatal to one’s job, if not one’s person; the New York Harbor was notorious for “floaters,” whether accidental or intended victims. At the same time, the waterfront was one of the few places where someone coming out of prison, or fresh off the boat, could find work. 

While he did not last long in this initial dock posting, O’Dwyer landed other dockside assignments with his ILA union membership card. The better-known Jack O’Dwyer vouched for him with loaders. Paul also turned to Bill, who seemed to know everybody in Brooklyn of any importance. 

Yet as a novice longshoreman Paul found himself enthralled by the sight of unsavory characters on the docks, one of them a gruff-spoken dandy in a derby hat and spats, Chesterfield overcoat, and diamond stickpin who answered to the name Johnny Spanish. Paul encountered him at Pier 44 while Spanish was soliciting “donations” to help a “sickly” worker. His audience consisted of men who hoped he might favor them with a day’s wages. They stood around him in a semicircle, Paul recalled, literally with hat in hand. 

Earning a not insubstantial six dollars a day, Paul would delay his development into a social activist. Looking back to those years much later, he acknowledged that he paid scant attention to the African Americans working in the most hazardous and strenuous jobs on the docks and knew next to nothing about America’s history of slavery and racism. Instead, he held tightly to his Irish identity; his survival instincts signaled that the gearwheels of upward mobility turned more easily for some ethnic groups than for others: 

“All I knew about America was what I had picked up between April, when I arrived, and September, when I started school. I understood that all kinds of people lived here– blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, Italians and Irish—and that more often than not they didn’t get along. I myself had conflicted feelings. I found myself clinging to my Irish identity because it gave me an edge over an Italian, and to my Catholic identity because it gave me a favored position over a Jew. I was aware too that being white put me in a class in which I was, even as a noncitizen, ahead of a black American of long standing.” 

Yet on one broiling day in August 1927, he did notice when Italian-speaking longshoremen were pelted with insults by Irish, Polish, and Scandinavian workers as the immigrant anarchists Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco were to be put to death in a Massachusetts state prison for the murder of a guard and a paymaster during the armed robbery of a shoe company. Following the case in the press, O’Dwyer believed that Sacco and Vanzetti were victims of bias — against Italians, against anarchists, against any and all foreigners — after the failure of appeals based on disavowed witness testimony and clashing ballistics evidence. 

O’Dwyer, pictured on the book’s cover, after being declared the winner of the race for City Council president in 1973. Photo: Jefferson Siegel.
O’Dwyer, pictured on the book’s cover, after being declared the winner of the race for City Council president in 1973. Photo: Jefferson Siegel.

“The country was then at the apex of one of its periodic repressive binges,” Paul later wrote, referring to national events before the pair’s indictment, trial, and execution, which took seven years in all, “and the Commonwealth had not had more satisfying victims since the Salem (witch) trials.” For when Sacco and Vanzetti’s indictment first came out in 1920, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, was arresting — without warrants — thousands of people in raids merely under general suspicion of radicalism; coming amid exaggerated fears of a Bolshevik Revolution in America, the sweeps (facilitated in part by J. Edgar Hoover, then a young Justice Department official), became known as the Red Scare. 

Before Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death, going after so-called revolutionists and labor radicals had been shown to be good politics, equated in the popular mind with preserving order. When Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge rebuked the American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and thousands of low-paid police officers seeking unionization in Boston, the stage was set for Coolidge to gain the GOP nomination for vice president in 1920 and then, upon the death of Warren Harding in 1923, the presidency itself. Sacco and Vanzetti’s case epitomized for the American left the government’s willingness to use unrestrained powers to quash dissent and intimidate the foreign-born. 

That is how O’Dwyer came to see it. “No one today doubts,” he wrote, “that those gentle idealists were convicted and executed for a crime they did not commit.” Today, scholars believe that at least one of the pair was likely guilty, and possibly both, but that they were unfairly tried. 

Yet in the shack at the head of Pier 3 in Brooklyn, Italian immigrant men who showed up for work when Sacco and Vanzetti went to the electric chair suffered “every kind of vengeful epithet” that Irish, Polish, and Scandinavian coworkers could dish out, said O’Dwyer. Looking back at the racist bullying with regrets, he said neither he nor any of the other occupationally insecure dockhands showed the presence of mind or courage to defend the Italian workmen from threats and vilification. 

Reprinted from “An Irish Passion for Justice: The Life of Rebel New York Attorney Paul O’Dwyer,” by Robert Polner and Michael Tubridy, a Three Hills book published by Cornell University Press. Copyright (c) 2024 by Robert Polner and Michael Tubridy. Used by permission of the publisher and the authors.

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  • MontyCaryl

    I remember Paul O’Dwyer well. When I was in eighth grade, in 1975, I went to the Bronx criminal court to watch a murder trial as an extra credit assignment from my history teacher. Afterwards, Mr. O’Dwyer asked me what school I was going to (All Hallows - a few blocks away) and my name. It turned out that he was very good friends with my father, who was a carpenter. We had a long interesting conversation and I later found out that his brother had been the mayor (of NYC). He was a real gentleman and it was one of the few times I remember as a kid that an adult treated me like a person and not a nuisance. I’ll definitely buy the book.

    Wednesday, May 15 Report this