We recently were made aware of an effort to memorialize a figure from the height of South Brooklyn's stevedoring past: Pietro "Pete" Panto, an activist who lost his life fighting for fairer wages and more equitable labor practices along the working waterfront. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up by Joseph Sciorra of Queens College to erect a tombstone for Panto, who has been buried in an unmarked grave for the last 80 years.
To learn more about who Panto was and what his activism and his death meant for the neighborhoods surrounding Freebird Books, we spoke with our friend, and the author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, Nathan Ward.
Freebird is located directly across from working docks, some of the last on the Brooklyn waterfront. Did Pete Panto work near here?
Panto mostly worked at the Moore-McCormack line's Pier 15, at the base of Brooklyn Heights under what is now the southern end of the Promenade. There he served as hiring boss, despite his anti-corruption views, because he had the loyalty of the Italian crews working there. What mattered first to his bosses was how quickly he could get a crew to turn a ship around in port. Once his views became more widely known, and gained him listeners and then followers among the workers, he became too much of a threat to leave unpunished. Columbia Street is the sight of where his organizing took hold and a couple of his speeches that threatened the nearby leadership. Hiring then was done through what was called a ’shape-up,’ where longshoremen would line up in a half-circle each morning to be picked by the hiring boss for the day. But on Columbia Street in particular, the crews had often been sorted out between the ship’s hatch boss and hiring boss before the shape up even began, making it a demoralizing formality. When Arthur Miller was brought down from Brooklyn Heights to witness the spectacle of the shape-up in the forties, he saw “a frantic scramble,” with men “tearing at each other’s hands.” After seeing this, Miller wrote famously, ”America, I thought, stopped at Columbia Street.” Eventually the longies (as they called themselves) won the right to a hiring hall, one of which still stands in the neighborhood. But Panto did not live to see that victory over the shape-up system, even if he inspired the men who fought for it.
Our shoreline is dominated by giant cranes servicing the container ports. But it’s largely an isolated job sector with little connection to the surrounding neighborhoods. Set the scene for Pete Panto’s waterfront.
It is more cut off than it was before much of the waterfront going toward Williamsburg was rezoned for development. At the time Panto first came on the scene in the late 1930s, there were six locals of the Brooklyn arm of the International Longshoremen’s Association representing the piers from Brooklyn Bridge to 20th street. These were called “Camarda locals,” controlled by the ILA’s Emil Camarda, and totaling 14,000 largely Italian longshoremen fighting each other for work at the daily "shape-up," where pier bosses chose the day’s crews. On the East Coast, the ILA was then a vicious caricature of trade unionism: with a "President for Life" Joe Ryan who had never called a strike and was richly beholden to the shipping companies and gangsters he had once invited in to give him strength against rivals, but who decided to stay on and take over, as thugs do if given an invitation. Ryan also paid himself richly out of his union coffers, including a special fund designated for fighting communism. It was at the dock end of President Street, near where there is a small garden today, that Emil Camarda had his Brooklyn headquarters, and where Pete Panto was summoned for his infamous warning in July 1939, when Camarda told him that “the boys” (mobsters such as Albert Anastasia) did not like what Pete was doing by organizing and speaking out against the ILA’s corrupt system.
What was break-bulk cargo, and who made up the stevedores hauling it?
Before containerization was invented in the late 1950s, cargo arrived in crates and bags, what was called "break-bulk." Longshoremen often carried a baling hook for moving the burlap sacks, which were lifted from the hold in nets or "slings." Once cargo could be moved from the ship to trucks in a single container, it meant that old ports with little cobbled streets and bad highway access could not compete with places that had better highway access —thus Port Newark gradually beat out Red Hook. At one point in the '6os there was even a plan to flatten much of Red Hook to better accommodate the tractor trailers, but it was abandoned. The saying goes among old Brooklyn guys that "New York got the Twin Towers" and "Jersey got the shipping," but the die was cast before that. Jersey just had the highway access for containerization. Break bulk still makes up a part of shipping,as some things don’t travel well in a box, but not like it was.
What role did Panto play in the longshoremen’s union?
In addition to being hiring boss at Pier 15 he joined and led his local’s Rank and File committee, through which he began to organize and speak against the dock rackets and ILA corruption. This was a threat to the leadership not just because of his skill as a speaker but because it was inspired by the militant gains being won at this time by the ILA’s West Coast branch, led by the radical Harry Bridges. The last thing they wanted was a Bridges-style figure emerging in the East. As one historian explained the split in the bi-coastal union, it was Reds Vs. Rackets. Panto was viewed as bringing a Bridges insurgency to the New York ports.
What did union corruption within the longshoremen’s union mean for the rank-and-file?
“Guys paid for jobs, but you never saw it,” a former Brooklyn longshoreman named Arturo Peicoro told me. “They might turn up with something on their hat, or behind their ear, but you never saw them do it. That was all done before.” Under its system of kick-backs, the Union strongly suggested payments to a favored barber, clothing store, etc. or tickets to a club event were often deducted from their pay; tickets were sold in the thousands to events whose venues (the St. George Hotel) only held 200. They also paid into “hiring clubs” with certain hiring bosses and paid “ghost” pay through gang-cutting, in which 15 men did the work of 20, with the “ghost” pay going to the hiring boss. Some longshoremen, Panto discovered, were spending nearly half their incomes on paying for work.
Did Panto understand the dangers of taking on Joseph Ryan and Albert Anastasia?
There are people whose source of inner strength remains mysterious after their death. Panto makes an unbelievable character for Hollywood because he has no arc, he’s admirable from the beginning. Friends described him as nervous, even shaken after his warning from Camarda, but we can only speculate about whether he really thought he might die. Significantly, he left his wallet in the apartment when he got into the car with the men who had him killed, as if a part of him hoped he would return in time for his date later that night. But of course the car took him to New Jersey and his murder.
What were the consequences of Panto’s exposure of the corruption?
Leadership of the rank and file committee was taken over by his very brave friend Pete Mazzie, who had dug up Panto and identified him by his teeth, ran the newsletter and led the fight through some very rough battles, even beaten up and kicked out of the union in 1941 for insisting on an investigation of Panto’s murder. The Panto killing may have brought the plight of the longshoremen to the wider political public, so that journalists and movie makers discovered it. But on the waterfront itself, Panto became both an inspiring figure for a brave core of workers and an excuse for caution for others, “Don’t forget what happened to Panto."
Could you explain “Dov’è Panto?”
When Panto first went missing on Bastille Day 1939, it confirmed the worst fears for the longshoremen he had inspired, who began chalking this message (Italian for “Where is Panto?”) as well as leaving leaflets around the waterfront from Red Hook to the Navy Yard, the subways, even Brooklyn Heights, shaming those they thought responsible. It may have been the graffiti campaign that led many outsiders to discover the story of Panto’s murder and brief inspiring life. “Police fear Pete is wearing a cement suit at the bottom of the East River,” wrote the gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Panto was instead buried in a lime pit at a house on a chicken farm in Lyndhurst, New Jersey often used for killings by what its members called the Combination (and newspapers named Murder Inc). He had been strangled there at Albert Anastasia’s direction and had ridden there with Emil Camarda. Panto’s body was trussed up and buried in a canvas sack along the Passaic River. When he was finally dug up eighteen months later, the body was brought back to New York under guard and re-buried in an unmarked grave, no doubt for fear it would be stolen back as evidence against Anastasia. And there Pete lay all this time until Joseph Sciorra took an interest.
There are some landmark works of theater and film that eerily echo this story. Were they inspired by Pete Panto’s story?
The closest is the one that came out only months after he was unearthed, Brooklyn USA, written by two crime reporters and reenacting the killing of a character named Santo by a gangster called "Albert." “Obviously,” the Times reviewer noted in December 1941, ”this situation comes from the murder of Peter Panto.” It was set to become a film starring John Garfield but Hollywood soon switched to wartime projects.
Vincent Longhi, a Brooklyn waterfront lawyer himself who had showed Arthur Miller the shape-up at Columbia Street and was the model for Miller’s lawyer in A View from the Bridge, wrote his own Panto-themed play, Two Fingers of Pride, which opened in 1955 in Maine and failed to jump to Broadway, but did give a start to its young Indianan star, Steve McQueen. In Benjamin Appel’s novel The Raw Edge (1958) Panto appears as a rebellious docker named Pete Pironi, who fights the Brooklyn rackets.
On the Waterfront, of course, has to be mentioned not because it is based on Panto, but because it is largely not and yet is still considered a betrayal of Pete’s story by many. Schulberg started by writing a true-life drama about the reporter who uncovered the dock rackets for the NY Sun and won the Pulitzer for 1948, Mike Johnson. When that failed to happen, Schulberg mortgaged his farm and bought the rights himself and then luckily attended the 1951 NY Crime Commission hearings for days on end, stealing pithy gangsterisms and learning the story of one man in particular, “Tony Mike” De Vincenzo, a former boxer, pier boss, and Crime Commission witness whose story became Terry’s, close enough in fact that De Vincenzo later successfully sued, and Brando even testified on his behalf. Panto would be too good to believe as a character in this film, but his life haunts its story, as Terry finds his conscience to stand up to the racketeers who have fed him. Panto started out where Terry ends up, and in Schulbergh’s novel, Waterfront, Terry is murdered, as he would be in real life.
Amongst the changes along our stretch of Columbia Street in South Brooklyn is the presence of some nondescript buildings housing the Waterfront Commission. What is it? And is its mission coming to an end?
The Waterfront Commission was established (along with a number of other gains) in 1953, after Ryan was finally unseated by a series of wildcat strikes that highlighted his loss of control. The Commission’s mission, stated by then Governor Thomas Dewey was to ensure that “racketeers, criminals, and hoodlums by driven from the docks,” Whether or not they have succeeded over the years is for a longer space, but New Jersey recently broached getting rid of the commission altogether. As of now, it is unclear why.
Why is it important to memorialize Pete Panto?
For one thing, in order to show up the racketeers who controlled the New York docks for too long and thought that by destroying this man they had also defeated his cause, which has never gone away. A chill may have been sent around the port by the killing of Panto, but it would seem that as long as the grave of such a hero remains unmarked it is a victory for thuggery. If you search for him right now, Findagrave.com has a picture of some grass and says “No marker but exact location.” That is shameful. People learning about his inspiring life should be able to visit and honor him, and consider the inspiring words on his headstone. Soon, they will be able to do just that.
To purchase a copy of Nathan Ward's Dark Harbor, go to our affiliate page at Bookshop.org.
To help raise funds for a Pete Panto headstone, go to GoFundMe
Gift incarcerated readers with books in subjects commonly requested: dictionaries, how to draw, financial guidance, and true crime.
Four works for $30 (42% off retail)
Following February's campaign (collecting 750 books!) that addressed censorship by highlighting three commonly banned books in American schools (Maus, The Bluest Eye, and An Indigenous People's History of the United States), we get back to our roots with category books that are amongst the most in demand at prisons: dictionaries, drawing guides, finance, and true crime. Every few months we put out a call for dictionaries, and every few months Books Through Bars NYC depletes that supply. Along with comic books, dictionaries are the materials most often asked for by incarcerated readers. Though we are not partial to one version over another, this month we go with the Random House Webster's Dictionary, which has over 75,000 entries. And we encourage anyone with an old mass market paperback dictionary along these lines to drop off at Freebird. They are always appreciated. Guides on how to draw and illustrate also go quickly and we include a variety from a series we have featured before, How to Draw in Simple Steps. A purchase of a bundle will include one from their series: animals, people, flowers, trees, fantasy figures, or cartoons. Financial information too, particularly on the economic system, is often requested, and this time we chose a book with the straightforward title, Money, that breaks down the political and commercial ramifications of currency in easy to understand ways. True crime is a broad category so we decided to choose a work that mixes murder mystery with the terrible consequences of conflict: Patrick Radden Keefe's acclaimed examination of the Irish Troubles, Say Nothing.
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