Although he stands only 5’6″, crusty Teddy Gleason is every bit as imposing as those towering loading cranes his men operate. This month the truculent 79-year-old leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association needed every inch of his authority to back up another of the controversial decisions that have peppered his 16-year reign on the docks. As a protest against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Gleason ordered his workers not to handle Soviet shipping, a unilateral step that troubled the Carter administration and perhaps some of his 116,000 members who may take home smaller paychecks. A State Department spokesman told the press, “We hope foreign policy decisions will be left to the Chief Executive.” But Gleason vowed: “This will last as long as the Russians insist on being international bullyboys.”
Last year he organized a similar boycott against cargo to and from Iran, and it has stuck. “It’s funny,” observes Gleason, “nobody criticized us then. But all the apologists come out on Russia.” Besides, he argues, “When Carter was running for President he said that Americans should participate in the decisions of government. That’s what I’m doing.” So far Gleason is getting away with it. His men, who have walked off their jobs three times in 11 years, are standing behind their leader just as firmly on anti-Communism as they have on dock issues.
Getting his Irish up is a way of life to Gleason, whose parents emigrated from the Emerald Isle. The oldest of 13 children, Gleason was born Thomas but his family switched to Teddy to avoid confusion with his father and grandfather. His childhood in Greenwich Village tenements was like a scene from On the Waterfront. His mother died when he was 13; two years later he followed his dad to the docks, working variously as a checker, billing clerk, winch driver, truck loader and timekeeper. In 1932 he was blackballed by stevedoring companies for supporting a wildcat strike and was reduced to hawking hot dogs on Coney Island. But when New Deal labor reforms got his job back, Gleason rose through the ILA ranks quickly, taking over as president in 1963. He stomps on reports of ILA links to organized crime, the recent convictions of several top union leaders notwithstanding. “If someone came to me and said, ‘We’re taking over,’ ” Gleason says, “I wouldn’t stand for it.”
He jokes about his age and boasts, “I feel like 40. I don’t walk or act like a guy 79. It’s unbelievable.” He starts working at 7 a.m. “I wish I could go out to the docks every day,” he says, “but I seldom get there.” Instead, he meets tirelessly with union deputies and shipping bosses. “Nine out of 10 days,” he says, “I eat a sandwich at my desk.” From his office at Battery Park he can survey New York Harbor. On the wall is a plaque from the Irish Republican Army reading, “Thanks, from the boys.”
Despite his $100,000 salary, Gleason’s surroundings are strictly middle-class. A bachelor since his wife Emma died in 1961, he lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan. Weekends he may spend with his three sons (a labor lawyer, a bonding company executive and an ILA legislative aide), 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Or else he heads for a house in New Jersey he bought for $3,700 in 1937. “I go up to the lake and put a sweater on and go to Mass,” he says. “I don’t have condominiums, and I never play golf.” His late wife’s sister takes care of the house. “She was never married,” explains Gleason. “So I’m lucky: I don’t have to get married to have a housekeeper.” His one extravagance (besides manicures) is taking up to five trips a year to Ireland. During these vacations the normally teetotaling Gleason also puts back “a little cognac.”
Like his hero, the late George Meany, Gleason points with pride to the changes he helped bring to his men. In his 64 years on the docks he has seen wages go from 350 an hour to $10.40. “The pay was so low,” he recalls, “that once in a while longshoremen had to take home a few samples to survive. In my day, we carried bananas by the stalk,” he continues while watching a containership unloading. “Today,” he adds nostalgically, “everything is prepackaged.”