The struggle between labor unions and politicos may have changed significantly from the rough-and-tumble days of common street brawls, shady back-room deals, and heavy-handed tactics like intimidation to motivate opponents to stay in line, but that doesn’t mean this slice of American history is any less fascinating for the average audio book enthusiast. Today such disputes are handled via lobbyists and legal maneuvering, but there was a time when ruthless bullying and underhanded (read: illegal) tactics were the norm. This was the state of affairs in the 1930s, during which the first superhighways were being constructed. And onto this stage came Jersey City mayor Frank Hague, a political mover and shaker with dreams of grandeur, and union boss Theodore “Teddy” Brandle. Although the two were allies when construction of the Pulaski Skyway (connecting Newark to the Holland Tunnel) was planned, the two would become enemies in the process, turning the last three miles of construction into a dispute of epic proportions.
Steven Hart’s ‘The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway’ seeks to explain the circumstances surrounding the building of the monumental Pulaski Skyway, a four-lane bridge spanning 3.5 miles, crossing two rivers, and serving as the final connector for the first superhighway in America. While many are familiar with this very roadway today because of frequent accidents and unreliable transport (depending on traffic it could take travelers minutes or hours to traverse the length), at it’s less-than humble beginnings it was a source of contention for labor and politics that led to strikes, picket lines, brawls, and even death.
The beauty of Hart’s rendering of this story is that it remains concise while still managing to develop the key players. It would be all too easy to paint caricatures of Hague as the blustering, power-hungry politico, playing labor unions like pawns, and Brandle as the ham-fisted union boss, swinging the weight of workers like a giant hammer and using sheer numbers to intimidate his opponents into seeing things his way. But Hart deftly weaves a vivid tapestry detailing the events leading up to the rift between Hague and Brandle and the bloody battle that followed. He takes listeners on a journey through a building project that would leave several injured and one dead.
The story is an old one: two men are friends until one takes a perceived slight. He retaliates by making threats, which lead to all-out warfare. In this case, Hague hired non-union contractors for a portion of a large building project (the Jersey City Medical Center) under Brandle’s supervision. Brandle called a strike and brawls ensued. Hague paid him off but proceeded to select non-union builders for the construction of the Pulaski Skyway. Brandle picketed the project, more incidents ensued, and Hague eventually had to create a virtual police state to get things under control, a move that would turn attention his way and ultimately lead to a loss of his judicial power. The two may as well have hopped in rough terrain cranes to go mano-a-mano at Kearney Point. In any case, ‘The Last Three Miles’ is a thrilling audio book that will suck you into a largely unknown chapter in the history of America’s industrial expansion. And Hart delivers all the hope and heartache that went into building this contentious connector between New York and New Jersey.