Few shipping-industry relationships are as unusual as the one that exists between the International Longshoremen's Association and the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. The Waterfront Commission was created in 1953 to combat pervasive corruption in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Public hearings had documented shakedowns, loan-sharking, cargo pilferage, kickbacks and more. The ILA was deeply involved.

The commission was empowered to screen and license dockworkers and employers, deny employment to those with criminal records, and to regulate the supply of longshore labor in the port. Its activities are funded by an assessment of up to 20f employers' gross longshorepayrolls.

For years, the ILA chafed under the commission's restrictions. Union officials criticized the agency as costly interference in private enterprise, particularly in control of hiring. They noted that New York-New Jersey was the only port with such government oversight.

Over time, however, those complaints have been muted. The ILA has learned not only to co-exist with the commission but to benefit from it.

The commission scrupulously strives to maintain a neutral stance between union and management. But its restriction on the supply of longshore labor has contributed to preservation of the ILA's monopoly position over longshore labor in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Containerization drastically reduced the need for dockworkers. Because of that, the Waterfront Commission closed its longshore register in 1969 to allow the labor surplus to be worked off through attrition and early retirements. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the supply of longshore labor came into balance with demand.

In 1999, with the blessing of the ILA and the New York Shipping Association, the New York and New Jersey legislatures approved a bill allowing the Waterfront Commission to reopen the register. Last year the commission conditionally granted a request by the ILA and NYSA for 481 new registrants.

Now, as Chris Dupin reports in an article on Page 17, a Port Newark scrap operator, Naporano Iron and Metal Co., is asking the commission to register about 40 of his employees for breakbulk work. It's the first time since the registry was reopened that the commission has received such a request from a non-ILA operator.

The company's president, Andrew Naporano Jr., says he had a 'friendly discussion' with ILA officials and that the union said it would oppose his request. 'Friendly' may not have been the proper adjective. Naporano has been a burr under the union's saddle for more than a decade.

In 1990 his company began doing its own stevedoring of bulk scrap steel, which doesn't require workers on the Waterfront Commission's deep-sea registry. Naporano used his scrap terminal's employees, who are represented by the Laborers International Union. The ILA responded with picketing and a one-day work stoppage at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth container terminals in 1991.

The ILA is in no danger of losing its containerized cargo. Container carriers need terminals that employ ILA labor, and are locked into a web of union benefit plans that contain stiff exit penalties. In other Atlantic and Gulf ports where non-ILA operators have succeeded, they've done so with breakbulk and bulk cargo, which are far less important in New York than containers.

Naporano says he hopes that any ILA protests of his plan will be confined to a Waterfront Commission hearing on Jan. 29. The commission, meanwhile, probably wishes the whole thing would just go away.

Several parties have a stake in the dispute. Some

shippers have said they're interested in using Naporano's company to handle steel products that now move through Delaware River terminals. Naporano says he has the right to operate as a stevedore without using ILA labor. The ILA and NYSA, meanwhile, worry that the emergence of non-ILA competitors could eventually jeopardize the solvency of union benefit plans.

Naporano notes that the 1999 legislation authorizing the reopening of the longshore roster allowed the commission to consider applicants from non-ILA companies.

But that wasn't the only change. In administering the law, the commission was authorized to protect the job security of the existing longshore work force 'by considering the wages and employment benefits of prospective registrants.'

What that means is open to interpretation. The ILA and the NYSA, which endorsed the wording of the legislation, undoubtedly interpret it as requiring that any new registrants be paid the same wages and benefits set forth in the ILA contract.

And if the Waterfront Commission wants to deny a license to Naporano, that clause would seem to give them a leg to stand on. I'm sure the ILA has known that from the start.

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney