The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor and the port industry it oversees have had a rocky relationship since Marlon Brando was a young man.
That relationship has been strained further by recent bickering over the crime watchdog agency’s efforts to enforce hiring diversity among International Longshoremen’s Association members at the Port of New York and New Jersey.
At a testy hearing this month, commission officials complained the union and the New York Shipping Association weren’t doing enough to make the port’s work force more diverse. ILA and NYSA officials accuse the commission of intruding into collective bargaining issues.
Sidebar: Daggett's Diagnosis.
It’s an opening skirmish in a battle that will be renewed next year when the ILA and NYSA ask New York state legislators to end the commission’s authority to regulate the size of the port’s longshore work force. New Jersey lawmakers have approved parallel legislation that requires New York’s concurrence to take effect.
Commission officials say curtailing their authority would open the way to labor surpluses that breed job-selling and other rackets. Port employers want freedom to hire workers when needed and say the costs of training and paying today’s employees would deter companies from adding too many workers.
“We don’t favor abolishing the commission,” NYSA President Joseph Curto said. “We believe it serves an important role in licensing, background checks and auditing, but we don’t think recruiting and hiring should be within their mandate.”
ILA President Harold Daggett favors abolition. “The commission is using diversity as a defense for maintaining their existence,” he said. “Their days are over. We don’t need them. We should get rid of them. They’re going to chase the business out of this port.”
The Waterfront Commission is unique to New York-New Jersey. It was created in 1953 to combat organized-crime activity dramatized in the movie “On the Waterfront.” The agency has broad authority to enforce fairness in hiring practices, and since 1968 has had authority to restrict the number of registered dockworkers.
Ronald Goldstock, the Waterfront Commission’s New York commissioner, said he’s confident New York legislators will reject efforts to restrict the commission’s authority, and said he hopes New Jersey legislators will reverse their 2009 vote.
Goldstock and Walter Arsenault, the commission’s executive director, have butted heads with ILA and NYSA officials over numerous issues since taking office in a commission shakeup that coincided with a 2009 New York state inspector general’s office that criticized the agency as dysfunctional and corrupt.
Commission hearings last year highlighted practices including off-contract deals providing round-the-clock pay of up to $464,000 to favored dockworkers, some related to mob figures. Daggett defended the workers’ pay, saying, “I wish all the members earned more than $400,000.”
More recently, commission and industry officials have sparred over diversity, which commission officials say is part of their mission to promote fair hiring.
When openings arose for several dozen seasonal baggage handlers at cruise terminals, the commission agreed to recruit and pre-qualify half of the candidates, with the ILA and NYSA selecting and screening the other half. The commission candidates were selected from unemployment centers, the ILA through word of mouth and other informal channels.
When the commission realized that the ILA’s pre-screened candidates were all white, the commission refused to register the last eight candidates. In response, the New York Shipping Association refused to allow the commission-screened workers to be trained for year-round jobs driving cars off ships.
The ILA’s ethical practices counsel has been trying to help the parties solve the impasse. Last month, the ILA and NYSA announced a plan to give preference to returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans for future job openings.
Curto agreed that employers and the ILA need to promote diversity, but said the Waterfront Commission is stretching its statutory authority too far. “We don’t believe they have the authority to tell us who to train or not,” he said.
Arsenault said the Waterfront Commission is on solid legal ground. “The courts since 1953 have consistently upheld the commission’s ability to interpose itself when fair hiring is jeopardized. The case law is overwhelming,” he said.
Daggett objected to the commission’s use of candidates from unemployment centers instead of traditional union channels. He apologized for an earlier description of the unemployment centers’ applicants as “garbage,” but said he still has strong reservations.
“My feeling is that if a person is on unemployment for three years, he knows how to play the system and how to stay out of work,” he said. “Most people don’t stay on unemployment for three years. They find jobs.”
Arsenault noted that fewer commission candidates were rejected for failing drug tests or criminal connections than those on the ILA’s list. “These are people who wanted to work,” he said. “Many of them had commercial driver’s licenses and experience operating heavy machinery. A number of them had TWIC cards ahead of time.”
Goldstock said the employment centers provide a diverse pool of potential workers and “open opportunities to individuals who would like to work and work hard, even though they do not know somebody or have family connections to somebody who has been in the union forever.”
The ILA and NYSA say the port’s overall longshore work force is 25 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic and 11 percent female — not far out of line with the 2010 census, which said the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area was 20.4 percent black and 24.6 percent Hispanic.
Many of the port’s black longshoremen are concentrated in the historically black Local 1233 in Newark. Most other locals’ memberships reflect their origins when most dockworkers lived in nearby ethnic neighborhoods that were predominantly white.
The Waterfront Commission was authorized to close the port’s longshore register in 1968 to prevent employers from adding workers when the ILA contract’s now-defunct Guaranteed Annual Income program gave many dockworkers full pay even if no jobs were available.
ILA and NYSA officials blame Waterfront Commission hiring restrictions for freezing the racial composition of port dockworkers. They said that when the register underwent its largest reopening in 1979, 40 to 50 percent of the union referrals were African-American.
Opening the port’s longshore rolls to new entrants has been a back-burner issue during the cargo slump that accompanied the recession, but Curto said the issue would return to the fore as volume recovers.
“We expect in 2012 we will need some additional manpower,” he said. “We anticipate increased cargo, and we have a large number of workers who are eligible to retire. If the next contract increases the pension, we’re likely to have an exodus. If it doesn’t, I doubt a lot of these fellows are going to hang around four or five or six years waiting for the next contract.”