Waterfront Family Feud

News flash: Many longshoremen in the Port of New York and New Jersey are second-, third- or even fourth-generation dockworkers.

Surprised? Neither am I.

Longshoring isn’t the only job that tends to be passed from generation to generation. “Legacies” are common in law firms, Ivy League admissions, and countless other activities. Just think how many politicians are elected and re-elected with no discernible qualifications except the right last name.

International Longshoremen’s Association members and employers defend friends-and-family hiring on the waterfront as a positive force that provides continuity and stability — when a son joins his father on the docks, the old man warns him not to sully the family name.

The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor takes a less benign view. The commission wants to broaden the dockworker gene pool to include more minorities and women and to shake up a workplace culture the agency says is vulnerable to criminal influence.

This difference of opinion is at the heart of the standoff between the Waterfront Commission and the ILA and New York Shipping Association. All port users have a stake in the outcome.

Labor shortages at the port hit crisis levels last summer just as terminals were implementing new systems and undergoing major construction. The result was weeks of backups and miles-long truck queues that blew just-in-time delivery schedules and exasperated shippers. The situation improved in September, but terminals still can’t hire as many work gangs as they need. Truckers continue to pay the price with near-daily lines outside one or more terminals.

With up to 300 dockworkers set to retire by April under the new six-year NYSA-ILA contract, the problem will worsen next year if new hires can’t be brought in quickly.

So far, neither the commission nor the industry has been willing to blink. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has stepped in to try to mediate a solution, and has organized meetings with the Waterfront Commission and the NYSA.

Although the port authority is a landlord agency that doesn’t employ longshoremen, it has a vital interest in smooth cargo flow. In connection with that, port officials have been working with the industry to set up a “gray” chassis depot — a potentially beneficial project that won’t work without an adequate supply of ILA clerks and mechanics.

It’s unclear how much headway the meetings have made. The parties apparently agreed on enough issues to persuade the Waterfront Commission to cancel two scheduled public hearings on hiring practices, but a third hearing is still on tap for Nov. 25.

Although the principals aren't commenting, the port authority has issued statements reporting “continued progress.” However, word filtering out of the meetings indicates that the sessions haven’t moved the ball forward as much as the press releases suggest.

The ILA and industry officials are hoping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will rein in the commission, but that looks like a long shot. The former prosecutor and all-but-announced presidential candidate has given no indication he’s eager to wade into this fight.

If that’s the case, the commission and industry will have to work it out themselves — and for port users, the sooner the better. April is less than five months away.

Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com and follow him on twitter.com/JosephBonney.

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