The Human Stories of Dock Labor – Part 3, Pete Panto: Longshoreman Martyr for Human Rights

July 29, 2022 Posted by: Peter Kasin

Three-quarter-view, head and shoulders photograph of Pete Panto. He has a friendly smile on his face and wears a white shirt, dark tie and suit jacket, and a wool felt fedora on his head.
1941-01-31 Pete Panto portrait Daily News NY 
Credit: Brooklyn Daily Eagle


“We are strong. All we have to do is stand up and fight.”

-Pete Panto


Pietro “Pete” Panto was a longshoreman who stood up against mobsters on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1939. In dock labor and Italian-American History, his name is synonymous with honesty and bravery in the face of tremendous odds.

Panto was born on Sept. 13, 1910, in Brooklyn, NY. His parents emigrated from Palermo. Not much is known about his life outside of his longshoring and activism, but what is known marks him as an extraordinary example of a fighter for human rights.

New York and New Jersey’s waterfronts were run by mobsters, hired by the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) “President for life” Joe Ryan. Although Ryan wasn’t in the mob, he often hired them to run union locals, and the union local officials in turn hired mobsters to enforce their control over longshoremen. Control was exerted through intimidation and violence. Ryan never once called for a strike, and promised shipowners to keep longshoremen in line. Dock labor was divided largely through ethnic lines. Brooklyn docks were worked mostly by Italian Americans.

Pete Panto was hired as a hiring boss for pier 3, by Emil Camarda, mobster and ILA Vice President in charge of a large number of Brooklyn piers and around 4,000 longshoremen. Panto was admired by the longshoremen for his honesty; a marked contrast to hiring bosses at the other piers, and tolerated by the mobsters until he began organizing against them. These are the corrupt mob-run union practices which repulsed him, and turned him toward activism:

1. The shape-up method of hiring, (see previous blog on the shape-up), the corrupt practice of hiring, replaced in 1934 on the West Coast by a union hiring hall, still in practice on East Coast ports.

2. Longshoremen forced to pay into ILA “President for life” Joseph Ryan’s “anti-communist fund” which in reality went into Ryan’s personal coffers. Payment was deducted from Longshoremen’s wages.

3. Longshoremen pressured to buy tickets to lavish ILA dinners, which they were not invited to attend. Example: 1,500 tickets sold for a 200-capacity hall. Not buying a ticket meant no work, and threats of violence.

4. Longshoremen pressured into paying into “hiring clubs.” Essentially paying in order to be hired, with no guarantee of actually working, due to the shape-up.

5. “Ghost pay.” Ship paid for a gang (longshore unit of workers, usually 15 men per hatch) of 20 men, only around 15 worked, and the rest of the pay went to the mobsters.


Panto created a rank-and-file movement. In June, 1939, Panto organized a rally and spoke before 350 longshoremen, railing against mob corruption and in favor of a union hiring hall. On July 3, 1,500 longshoremen showed up for another rally and speech.

At first the mob tolerated him as Panto was a competent hiring boss and made for quick turnover in cargo, the most important part of longshoring as far as ILA leadership and shipping companies saw. The attitude of the mobsters, as historian Nathan Ward writes, was “We’ll put up with his honesty as long as he gets the job done, but if he starts telling people they don’t have to put up with this stuff…”

In July, 1939, Panto was called into Camarda’s office on President Street and is told “Some of the boys don’t like what you’re doing, so lay off.” “Boys” was code term for mobsters. Panto refused to stop.

On Bastille Day, 1939, Panto got a call to meet with union officials. He told his girlfriend that if he didn’t return the next day, to call the police. He got into Camarda’s limousine and was taken to NJ and is strangled to death by mobster Mendy Weiss, under orders from mob boss Albert Anastasia. He was buried in a lime pit on a Lyndhurst, New Jersey chicken farm, which was a burying spot used by mobsters. His body found in January, 1941 from a tipoff.


Police refused to investigate, calling it a case of “Just another longshoreman running off with a woman.” Activists kept up pressure to prosecute, but to no avail. Graffiti appeared on walls and in subway stations, “Dov’è Panto?” (“Where is Panto?”) before his body was found. Nobody was ever arrested and prosecuted for his murder.


Panto’s murder became both an inspiration and a chilling effect on further organizing until over a decade later, when wildcat strikes began to weaken Joe Ryan’s hold on the ILA. After the Kefauver Senate crime hearings, Ryan, in 1953, lost his lifetime presidency of the ILA. Arthur Miller wrote a screenplay based on Panto, “The Hook,’” which was to be directed by Elia Kazan, but was rejected by Columbia Pictures , as the studio head wanted the villains changed from mobsters to communists. Miller refused. The Hook is yet to be made into a movie, but was

finally staged as a play in 2015, in Northampton, England. In 2019, a reading of the play was staged on Brooklyn’s waterfront by the Brave New World Theater Company. A fully staged production by the company was set for 2020, but cancelled due to the pandemic.

Pietro “Pete” Panto was a martyr to the cause of justice. His grave was unmarked, most likely, historians note, because of fears that mobsters may have tried to exhume his body, or destroy a grave marker. The site, though, of his burial is known, and in March, 2022, an online campaign to raise money for a proper gravestone ended in June, as the needed funds were successfully raised.

Today, hiring is done through a union hiring hall, and the docks are no longer run by mobsters. Reforms called for by Panto took over a decade after his murder to begin. His example began the spark that, after a decade of a chilling end to other reformers stepping up, finally took hold.

Drop hooks, all you longshoremen, this Panto burial day.

      This working man from off the docks. Our martyr in the fray.

              —Anonymous poem from a longshoreman, read at Panto’s funeral.





"Shape-ups, Break-Bulks, and the Legacy of Pete Panto." Interview with Nathan Ward (author of Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront). Freebird Books (Brooklyn) web site. March 16, 2022. Accessed July 25, 2022.

Schwartz, Stephen. "Arthur Miller's Proletariat: The True Stories of On The Waterfront, Pietro Panto, and Vincenzo Longhi." Film History 16:4 (2004), pp. 378-392.


Ward, Nathan. Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront. New York: Picador (2010)

Video recordings

Pete Panto Conference, Parts 1 & 2 (2001), Calandra Italian American Institute. Presentations by Professor Joseph Sciorra (Calandra Institute, CUNY); Professor Calvin Winslow (College of the Redwoods); William Mello (New School); William DiFazio (St. John’s University); Vincent J. Longhi, Esq. YouTube. Accessed July 25, 2022.

"Where is Pete Panto? Corruption and Crusaders on NYC's Waterfront" (Interview and discussion with Nathan Ward and Prof. Joseph Sciorra, March 22, 2021). Turnstile Tours. YouTube. Accessed July 25, 2022.

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Last updated: July 29, 2022

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