Battle Continues Over NY-NJ Port Hiring

Battle Continues Over NY-NJ Port Hiring

The International Longshoremen’s Association and its employers in the Port of New York and New Jersey are pushing forward with a court challenge of new hiring rules they say could worsen the port’s dockworker shortage.

U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton of Newark refused on Dec. 19 to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor from applying new rules that would restrict union referrals of applicants for ILA mechanics’ jobs.

Wigenton ruled that she was not persuaded that “irreparable harm” would result if the new rules took effect before she could rule on the commission’s request to dismiss an industry lawsuit challenging the rules.

The judge had planned to rule on the dismissal request by the end of January, but that schedule apparently will be pushed back.

The ILA, the New York Shipping Association and the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association on Jan. 6 filed an amended version of their lawsuit challenging the new rules. The commission has 21 days to respond, which means Wigenton is unlikely to rule this month.

The industry lawsuit contends the commission overstepped its statutory authority by interfering in ILA-employer collective bargaining agreements. The amended lawsuit adds a new claim that the commission violated due process by failing to provide notice or hold hearings on new hiring rules for mechanics.

The controversy over hiring rules has complicated the hiring of workers needed to ease labor shortages that have contributed to delays for cargo interests and long lines for drayage drivers. Terminals endured gridlock through most of last summer, and delays remain frequent.

The Waterfront Commission says its new rules on hiring are aimed at increasing diversity in the port’s longshore workforce. The commission, created in 1953 to combat crime on the docks, wants to change the long-established practice under which the union refers job candidates for employers to screen and recommend for the commission’s background checks and licensing.

Since its current leadership took charge five years ago, the commission has tried to use recruitment and hiring to root out vestiges of organized crime influence at the port. The campaign for increased diversity is part of an effort to change what commission officials see as a too-cozy waterfront culture.

The ILA and employers say the commission is seeking to illegally micromanage a port workforce they say is already diverse. Workers covered by the NYSA-ILA contract were 22.7 percent African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 9.7 percent female as of May 2011, according to NYSA statistics.

Industry officials contend the commission lacks authority to interfere in their collective bargaining agreements, which authorize union referrals. The commission insists its charter allows it to enforce equal-opportunity hiring, even if it conflicts with union-employer contracts.

The six year local contract the ILA and NYSA signed last year specifies that the pool of new hires will be 51 percent military veterans, 25 percent ILA referrals, and 24 percent NYSA referrals.

About 250 workers are scheduled to retire by April under the new contract’s enhanced pension provisions. Some 300 othes left the workforce under the previous contract and haven’t been replaced. industry officials say that if vacancies can’t be filled, the port faces a continuation of labor shortages that have sapped productivity.

The industry has asked the commission for authority to hire 682 longshoremen and clerks. The commission has approved hiring of 150 longshoremen and 75 clerks and said it would consider additional hires as needed. The NYSA-ILA contract covers about 3,500 longshoremen and ILA clerks.

Separate from the NYSA-ILA contract, about 1,000 ILA mechanics are covered by a contract between the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association and ILA locals 1804-1 in New Jersey and 1814 in Brooklyn.

At last month’s court hearing, the commission’s general counsel, Phoebe Sorial, said Local 1804-1 is less than 2 percent African American and 16.6 percent Hispanic, and that the much smaller Local 1814 is 7.5 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic.

Industry and commission officials have blamed each other for delays in hiring new ILA workers. Container terminals have say their productivity has been slowed by shortages of longshoremen, clerks and mechanics who maintain and repair intermodal chassis.

Employers have continued to send applicants for mechanics’ jobs to the commssion for background checks and registration. Several of those applicants are awaiting commission approval.

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