Gleason, Thomas William (“Teddy”)
Gleason, Thomas William (“Teddy”)
Gleason was the oldest of thirteen children born to Thomas William Gleason, a dockworker, and Mary Ann Quinn, a homemaker. His parents were second-generation Irish Catholic immigrants who lived on Manhattan’s West Side. He was called “Teddy” to distinguish him from his father and his grandfather, both namesakes. Teddy’s formal education was limited. He attended Saint Alphonsus Roman Catholic School only to the seventh grade, leaving in 1915 to help support his large family.
Gleason joined his father and grandfather on the docks of the port of New York, then the busiest harbor in the world. Working by his father’s side at the Charles Street Pier on Manhattan’s West Side, the center of longshoremen’s employment, Gleason’s pay was little (thirty-five cents per hour), his hours were long, and the conditions were horrendous.
At this time longshoremen “shaped up” for work. They appeared at the shipping company’s docks and waited to be chosen by the company for work that day. Employment was never guaranteed, and often workers were hired for short periods and had to shape up as many as four times a day. To secure work, the longshoremen were forced to pay many hiring bosses a “kickback,” further reducing their meager wages.
Gleason told a Newsweek reporter in 1962 that the docks of New York had been like “the Barbary Coast.” In protest he joined the young International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1919 and became active in dockworkers’ struggles. The ILA was, Gleason later recalled, “a gang of rebels,” the only group working to better the workers’ conditions.
Because of his union activity and his visibility as a union man, Gleason found regular employment difficult. In 1923 he married Emma Martin, and they quickly had three children. In 1932 the industry formally blacklisted Gleason for his union activity. His family was forced to move into an apartment with only one bed in an Irish working-class neighborhood, and Gleason took work in a Brooklyn sugar factory.
In 1933, with the help of New Deal legislation favorable to unions, Gleason once again found work on the docks. In 1934 he rose to business agent of the Checkers’ Local, and later he became local president. He worked closely with the international leadership and continued to negotiate successful contracts for his local. In 1947 the ILA president Joseph Ryan appointed Gleason full-time organizer for the ILA.
By all accounts Gleason and Ryan had a stormy relationship. Ryan fired him from the ILA at least three times, hiring him back on each occasion because of rank-and-file protest. By 1951 Gleason led a dissident group within the ILA that organized a general strike on the docks of New York in 1951. The strike prompted the New York State Crime Commission’s investigation of corruption on the waterfront and inspired the film On the Waterfront (1954). In 1953, in response to public cries of corruption, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) expelled the ILA.
Ryan resigned as president of the now independent union. Gleason backed the next president, William Bradley, and assumed the top organizer post, which Bradley created for him. Gleason steered the union through tough times. He fought off the rival AFL union, the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen, through his able bargaining with employers. Using money borrowed from the United Mine Workers, Gleason held the union together. Then in 1956, tired of the instability in the industry, the New York Shipping Association signed a contract with the ILA, making it the sole union for East Coast longshoremen. In 1959, convinced that Gleason had cleaned up the union, George Meany, the president of the new federation formed by the 1955 merging of the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, welcomed the ILA into the AFL-CIO.
By 1961 Gleason had risen to power within the ILA as executive vice president of the national union, president of the ILA’s Atlantic Coast District, and president of the Checker’s Local, one of the largest in the ILA. Gleason led the union in its 1962 strike, in which the issues were work-gang size and automation. With the aid of federal mediation, the strike was settled in 1963, when both sides agreed to submit these issues to a federal two-year study. That same year Gleason, then president, announced he would open the union’s books for auditing and he would take away the locals’ right to honor all picket lines. Gleason, who was described as a “fireplug of a man,” at five feet, six inches tall and about 180 pounds, declared that only “responsible” picket lines and strikes would be honored and that he would decide what was responsible.
Two issues dogged the ILA after 1962, the tradition of not handling cargo going to communist nations and automation. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would sell excess wheat to Russia, Gleason was in a bind. The wheat was going with or without the ILA. In the end the ILA agreed to handle the cargo providing that at least 50 percent of the ships were American, which because of the maritime laws essentially meant using union labor, and that none of the ships be Russian. In 1964, when one company was shipping only 38 percent of its cargo on American ships, Gleason called a boycott. President Lyndon B. Johnson stepped in, and the government honored the 50 percent rule.
In the 1964 contract talks the issue of crew size and automation once again proved the sticking points. Just four days before a strike the parties reached a settlement. Gleason called the contract “the best ever made in the history of the ILA.” The work-gang was reduced from twenty to seventeen, shrinking the workforce, and in exchange the union members received an annual income guarantee whether they worked or not. The workers also gained hourly wage increases, and the union won an increase in their automatic dues checkoff, called a “double dues checkoff.” Because of the dues issues the workers rejected the contract and went out on a twenty-day strike. Gleason eventually convinced the rank and file to accept the original conditions. On the issue of automation Gleason relented and allowed the use of containers. Containerization and laborsaving technologies eventually destroyed the union. Using containers and technology, shipping companies employed fewer and fewer workers. Yet Gleason’s union members did well. In exchange for accepting containerization, workers received their annual incomes. At the end of his service as president, Gleason watched his union decline. Clearly technology was inevitable, and Gleason was powerless to stop it. In the end he chose to take care of his members.
In 1964 Gleason was appointed to the President’s Maritime Advisory Committee and advised a number of governmental bodies on maritime issues. In 1969 he became a vice president and an executive board member of the AFL-CIO. He retired from labor in 1984. After suffering from a heart condition for a number of years, he died in New York City at age ninety-two. He was buried in New York City.
Gleason’s papers are in the ILA Collection at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Taminent Library, New York University. He is mentioned in a number of histories of the industry, including Maud Russell, Men Along the Shore (1966); Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront (1988); Calvin Winslow, ed., Waterfront Workers (1988); Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York (2000); and Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, The Abandoned Ocean (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Dec. 1992). An oral history is in the ILA Collection at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Taminent Library, New York University.
Richard A. Greenwald