Sound and Fury at NY-NJ Port

Combine several hundred longshoremen on a work break with energetic speakers using microphones they don’t need, and you get a lot of noise.

There was plenty of that at a Port Newark rally on March 25. Dockworkers cheered lustily as a parade of speakers took turns blaming the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor for delays in hiring New York-New Jersey dockworkers.

“It’s time to put the commission into remission,” thundered International Longshoremen’s Association President Harold Daggett. Other speakers piled on, representing a united front of New Jersey unions, business organizations and politicians.

The bombast wasn’t necessary for the immediate audience. Port workers and any New Jersey mover and shaker who’s paid attention are aware of issues at the East Coast’s busiest port. Eighty percent of the bistate port’s cargo and jobs are on the harbor’s New Jersey side.

It’s a different story across the Hudson River. Except for a couple of districts in Staten Island, the bistate port is out of sight, out of mind for most Empire State residents and their elected leaders. They see the goods on store shelves but don’t know or care how they got there.

Everyone involved with the port agrees more dockworkers are needed to ease labor shortages. Hiring is proceeding slowly amid finger-pointing over responsibility for delays and an ILA-New York Shipping Association lawsuit challenging the commission’s hiring rules.

Organizers of last week’s rally had no illusions they could persuade the commission to reverse its new hiring rules, which the commission says are needed for diversity but which the ILA and NYSA say are illegal interference in collective bargaining.

While the commission and industry slug it out in court and dicker over minutiae of the hiring process, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the battle over control of port hiring may be decided at New York’s state capitol in Albany.

New Jersey passed legislation in 2007 to repeal the commission’s power to regulate the size of the port’s longshore workforce. Because the commission is a bistate agency, legislation governing it must be approved by both states. Several repeal efforts in New York have died in committee.

Labor and business officials plan to step up efforts to persuade New York to concur with New Jersey’s legislation. They’re also contacting the states’ congressional representatives to encourage them to apply their influence, possibly by amending the federal act that created the commission’s bistate compact in 1953.

Will those efforts succeed? The outcome will determine whether last week’s rally was just noise, or something more significant.

Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @josephbonney.

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