NYC-Area Locals Seek Flexibility in Face of Possible Mob Return to Longshoremen

The International Longshoremen’s Association for the past year and a half has been facing a massive federal civil RICO suit.  Yet the union and its New York City and New Jersey locals insist the bad old days are over.  In the case of the locals, the claim is part of a campaign to convince state lawmakers to allow greater flexibility in hiring.  But a court-appointed administrator of one of the more notorious locals thinks we should move on this carefully, if at all, because the Mafia is waiting in the wings.  What’s more, he says, complete freedom to hire may be unnecessary, since lately the main problem has been a worker surplus, not a shortage.

The ILA is joining forces with shipping companies to convince the New York and New Jersey legislatures to amend the laws governing the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor.  The bi-state commission, created back in 1953 to combat well-documented mob domination of the docks, from the start has been authorized to exercise broad police powers, including performing criminal background checks on job applicants.  Since 1966, the commission also has regulated the size of the dock work force.  Without such authority, officials say, organized criminals could take advantage of a labor surplus to extort money from workers.  Under the law, terminal operators seeking to hire workers above a designated maximum must obtain commission approval.  The problem, of course, is that for most of that time, the Genovese and Gambino crime families muscled their way into union affairs anyway until finally a slew of prosecutions and convictions, especially during this decade, turned the tide.


Until recently, the lack of hiring flexibility was a moot issue.  Shipping had become containerized, reducing the need for new workers.  Moreover, featherbedded union contracts required dockworkers to be paid even when they weren’t working.  Over time, however, increases in cargo volume offset these factors.  The Waterfront Commission, accordingly, in 2003 allowed the New York Shipping Association (NYSA), which represents terminal operators, to increase the combined work force of longshoremen and clerks from about 2,900 to 3,300.  It since has raised the ceiling to 3,600 workers.  Terminal operators for several years have requested that the commission give them complete hiring flexibility in order to meet changing market conditions.  They’ve apparently found an ally in the Longshoremen’s union.    


At a New Jersey legislative hearing last October, representatives of the NYSA, the Maritime Association of the Port of New York, and the New Jersey AFL-CIO each spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would make the port more competitive.  Also giving testimony was a representative from ILA Local 1588, based in Bayonne, N.J., which has been in receivership since 2003 when a federal judge appointed an administrator to take over day-to-day operations.  Various local officials, including two presidents, had been convicted of participating in a longtime shakedown racket eventually broken up in 2002.  Most union members are employed at Global Container Terminal or its adjacent North East Auto-Marine Terminal, and are eligible to take surplus jobs when they become available.     

The union’s court-appointed administrator, former New York City Police Commissioner Robert McGuire, however, doesn’t think lifting the hiring ceiling is a good idea.  At the hearing, he cautioned such an arrangement would invite another round of underworld infiltration.  To remove the limits, would be “an invitation for organized crime to re-emerge and fill the vacuum, as it has the capacity to do whenever there are conditions which are so inviting and susceptible to regulation by strong-arm tactics.”  He added that the current labor problem is a surplus rather than a shortage.  During the last three years, he said, many existing members of Local 1588 haven’t been able to find work.  About 30 percent of members, mainly new hires, are unable to work the minimum 1,300 hours a year needed to qualify for health benefits.  The NYSA representative responded that his organization does not plan to hire any additional workers until there were enough union jobs.  It’s not an easy decision.  But after all is said and done, the Waterfront Commission would seem better suited to keeping the Mafia at bay than controlling the laws of supply and demand.  (Journal of Commerce, 2/5/07).