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Ben Hall

Curran Tries to Clamp
Dictatorship over NMU

(19 November 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 48, 28 November 1949, pp. 1  4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From Labor Action, NEW YORK, Nov. 19 – In the port of New York, home branch of half the membership of the National Maritime Union (CIO) and seat of its national headquarters, President Joseph Curran enters and leaves his office protected by a squad of 20 policemen in the face of the violent, jeering, mocking hatred of his rank and file. When he goes home in the evening surrounded by this bodyguard, a hundred members of the NMU tag along, taunting him with “fink” and “rat.” “What ‘s the matter, Joe?” yell the milling group. “Do you need cops to protect you against your own members?”

And he does! Curran has no majority in New York. In truth, he does not have the support even of a minority worth speaking about.

Only a tiny clique of office holders and would-be office holders rally to his side. Without membership support, he is desperately calling bn the police to take the New York hiring hall away from the rank and file and its elected leaders.

He supported Mayor O’Dwyer in the recent election, and now “he gets his payment: the New York police force is at his disposal to use against the members of the NMU. High point in Curran’s new type of unionism – police-unionism – came at the port of New York membership meeting on Thursday, November 17.

On the previous Monday the Curran-dominated national office announced the “removal” of New York Port Agent David Drummond and all patrolmen who supported him. Drummond is the top elected official of the New York branch; patrolmen, also elected, work under his jurisdiction. He is a leader of the Independent Caucus of the NMU, which opposes the bureaucratization of the union by Curran.

Drummond was “removed” in violation of the union constitution, which provides for a fair and square trial before the New York membership. Curran knew that he could never convict Drummond but he had to get rid of this thorn in his side. He moved illegally.

But it didn’t work. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday thousands of rank-and-filers massed into their union hall, spilling over.;into the streets and saw to it that Drummond continued as port agent. Everyone awaited the regular New York membership meeting, scheduled for Thursday night, beginning at 7:30 at St. Nicholas Arena.

Cops and Clubs for Curran

At six o’clock, NMU members began to arrive. They found the entrance to the Arena blocked by police. Twenty cavalrymen were posted on each side of West 66th Street. Scores of ordinary police and plainclothesmen patrolled up and down the street.

The seamen were herded into a long line, 500 of them, five abreast. More and more arrived and as they waited outside, bus after bus pulled up to the entrance. They were marked “Chartered.” Their license plates: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

Several hundred men got out and were escorted into the hall by the police, as were some national officials of the NMU, including Hulbert Warner, illegally appointed port administrator. The the crowd outside was allowed to file in.

They saw the lobby crammed with cops and plainclothesmen. In the main hall, union officials were already seated on the platform protected by a police squad. Along the front of the hall, below the platform-stage, another line of cops was posted – a second line of police in the rear of the hall – one down each side aisle – one in the balcony. At least 250 cops were ready for action inside the meeting hall or outside, waiting on call.

Scores of Curran-appointed “masters-at-arms,” identified by armbands, acted as ushers. These men were seamen; and, as the meeting proceeded, many of them tore off their armbands in protest against Curran. They had been called in from other ports and knew nothing but snatches of Curran-inspired gossip; when all shipping in their ports was stopped by Curran, they came to New York to save their union “from a small group of red conspirators.” But that night they learned a lesson.

Mike Drowned Out

But this time, about 1,500 men were seated, waiting for their meeting to begin. Curran arrived flanked by policemen. David Drummond, accompanied by a federal marshal, stepped onto the police-packed platform and presented Curran a federal court injunction restraining the national office from interfering with the conduct of the New York port and from obstructing Drummond from carrying out his duties as agent. (As port agent he opens the meetings of the New York membership.) Curran ignored the injunction and called on the police to throw Drummond off the platform, which they promptly did.

To open the meeting, Warner (Curran-appointed administrator) stepped to the microphone, an extraordinarily powerful instrument, specially selected for the meeting. A deafening roar drowned out his words. “We want Drummond – we want Drummond” shouted the crowd.

The Curran imported seamen were stunned and silent. For half an hour the din of angry voices made it impossible for Warner to continue. By then the hall was packed, with approximately 3,000 members of the NMU present.

Confident that they had an invincible majority, the men quieted down. Nominations were taken for chairman. Curran was named. A sprinkling of clapping was hooted down in the boos and hissing. Charles Keith, leader of the anti-Curran Independent Caucus was put in nomination: a terrific wave of cheering. Warner asked all union patrolmen to step to the platform and supervise the counting of the votes. He pointed out anti-Curran patrolmen and the police threw them off the stage.

Cops Vote for Curran

Warner takes the count: “All those in favor of Curran.” Some 500 hands go up, mostly in the section marked off for Curran’s imported supporters. “All in favor of Keith.” Twenty-five hundred membership books are waving. Wild cheering. A storm of applause.

“Just one moment,” says Warner, “there is a large overflow crowd which couldn ‘t get into the hall. They are now at Transport Hall. We will have to send tellers to count their vote.” He dropped this fantasy quickly enough. Transport Hall is several blocks from St. Nicholas Arena where the meeting was being held!

“Let’s take a recount,” says Warner. The same 500 hands for Curran. The same 2,500 hands for Keith. Another wild victory celebration. Warner hesitates for a moment. And then when the cheers die down -he looks at the crowd and reports: “Brother Curran is obviously elected!” Keith, who was seated on the platform as a nominee for chairman, rushes toward the mike, succeeds in shouting out one word ... Police and plainlothesmen swoop down and throw him off the stage.

The New York Times’ radio station WQXR reported: “After a show of hands Curran was named chairman.” The newscast omitted the fact that 250 police clubs outvoted 2,500 NMU membership books.

When Curran walked to the mike, the audience rose: “We want Keith – we want Keith.” Curran could not be heard above the chant. Seamen lifted rows of twelve folding chairs joined togther, pounding them up and down on the floor. When the chairs were smashed in pieces, they picked up chunks of wood to hurl at Curran. The crowd leaned forward. For one moment it seemed as though 2,000 men would fight their way forward, overwhelm the police, trample over the top union officials, and take over the hall. But the opposition leaders passed the word around: “Hold back – Take it easy!”

For three quarters of an hour, Curran tried to speak. But it was impossible. Each time he opened his mouth the crowd shouted: “Curran is a fink – Curran is a fink,”, and “We want Keith – we want Keith.”

Mock Membership Meeting

And there, protected by the police and only by the police, facing the unanimous hatred of the New York membership, Curran, the man who had just been imposed as chairman, cried out to the NMU before him: “What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you believe in democracy?”

At last Curran gave up all attempts to hold a real membership meeting and played out a public farce. Amid the boos, jeering, hissing and shouting, Curran acted out a mock “membership meeting.” He declared a secretary elected by votes that were never cast. His secretary read off charges (which could not be heard) against Drummond, and he declared them officially referred to his own national office in imaginary balloting.

It took Curran only ten minutes to mumble out this mumbo-jumbo, after which he declared the “meeting” adjourned and he and a few hundred out-of-town supporters walked out of the hall under police escort.

Curran left, but the police remained. Drummond tried to get to the mike, but the police pulled it out and took it away. They turned off the lights over the platform and prevented him from taking the stage.

Drummond climbed up on a chair. The hall was still packed but in the pin-drop silence he could be heard in every corner, speaking without a microphone, using a piece of cardboard rolled up into an improvised megaphone. Perfect order prevailed. Keith was elected chairman. Charges were preferred against Curran and M. Hedley Stone, national treasurer. Two thousand members elected a 15-man trial committee.

This is the true account of what was reported in the press as a big battle between the “right” and “left” wings at the NMU membership meeting. Who was in the “right” wing? Curran, a few officials and hundreds of cops and dicks. Who was in the “left” wing? The united New York NMU membership.