Q&A: Waterfront Commission Hearings on NY-NJ Labor Practices

Q&A: Waterfront Commission Hearings on NY-NJ Labor Practices

Editor Dana L. Brundage and Senior Editor Joseph Bonney discuss the recent hearings in front of the Waterfront Commission regarding labor practices at the Port of New York and New Jersey, the reaction to the hearings and the future of the commission itself.

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Q: You’ve been covering the Waterfront Commission hearings on labor practices in the Port of New York and Jersey. Can you give a brief review on what has been going on as of late?

A: The Waterfront Commission scheduled a series of hearings to highlight certain practices that the commission says drive up costs in the port and invite organized crime influence. The commission said it wanted to show evidence of no-show jobs, no-work jobs, favoritism in hiring and other practices.

Q: What information has come out of the testimony so far?

A: They’ve had several witnesses, including an International Longshoremen’s Association shop steward who’s paid $400,000 a year for 168 hours a week, and an ILA timekeeper who was paid $464,000 last year for 25 hours of daily pay. There was testimony that some timekeepers are paid for as much as 27 hours a day. A cargo checker who was banned from the docks after he was caught on a wiretap with a fugitive mobster took the 5th amendment rather than respond to allegations that he had a no-show job.

The commission has been making a couple of points: First, that staffing requirements add to costs -- 40 percent of the hourly wages paid to dockworkers are for hours that aren’t worked. And also, that many of the people holding the high-paid dockworkers jobs got them through inside connections, either family or otherwise. The commission said this suggests favoritism that creates an environment that organized crime can exploit.

Q: What’s been the reaction?

A: The commission will hear this week from the leaders of ILA locals in the port. Last week the commission questioned the terminal operators. The employers were in an uncomfortable position. They conceded that things like paying a guy for 27 hours a day probably don’t make a lot of sense. But they noted that these practices have existed for decades. They’re embedded in the ILA contract or in customs and practices that union and management have adopted over the years.

The employers said they can’t change these practices unilaterally. They have to do it through the give and take of collective bargaining. And in that give and take, if management tries to take away some of these things, the ILA is almost certainly going to demand something in return. That’s probably why it hasn’t been done before.
Q: Will these practices be part of the next round of contract negotiations?

A: Yes, almost certainly. Now that some of these practices have been brought to light, management will feel pressure to assign them a higher priority in future negotiations. The current ILA contract is doesn’t expire until September 2012, but bargaining on a new agreement probably will begin sometime next year. Those negotiations were going to be difficult anyway, for a variety of reasons, but this adds a new element.

Q: What about the Waterfront Commission itself? A New Jersey legislator has introduced a bill to abolish the commission or to allow the governor to veto its actions. Were these hearings called in reaction to that?

A: The commission’s vote to schedule the hearings came in June -- three months before state Senator Ray Lesniak introduced his legislation. But with these hearings the commission clearly is trying to put down a marker to show that it means business, and that it’s a different agency from what it was a couple of years ago.

For a number of years the commission, frankly, was considered a joke. It had a terrible reputation within the industry and it did not appear to be respected by other law enforcement agencies.

Early last year, the New York state inspector general issued a very critical report about the commission. He basically said the agency was ineffective and corrupt – that was ironic, considering the commission was created to fight corruption on the waterfront.  Senator Lesniak cited that report when he introduced the legislation to abolish the commission.

Since that investigation, the commission’s leadership and much of its staff have been replaced and the agency has instituted reforms. The New York inspector general, Joseph Fisch, told me last month that the commission he investigated a couple of years ago is not the one that exists today. He said, pretty emphatically, that the agency should not be abolished.