Waterfront Agency Asks Judge to Dismiss Lawsuit Challenging NY-NJ Hiring Rules

Waterfront Agency Asks Judge to Dismiss Lawsuit Challenging NY-NJ Hiring Rules

The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor asked a federal judge to dismiss an industry lawsuit challenging the agency’s new hiring rules that restrict union referrals for dockworker jobs in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The New York Shipping Association, International Longshoremen’s Association and Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association have sued the commission, claiming the agency is infringing on their collective bargaining agreements.

In a brief filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, the commission said the bistate Waterfront Commission Act that created the agency in 1953 gives it broad authority to ensure non-discriminatory hiring, even if its rules conflict with union-employer contracts.

“Going forward, the commission may continue to ‘infringe’ on such collective bargaining rights if its actions are in furtherance of the original policies and purposes of the act,” wrote commission general counsel Phoebe Sorial.

The ILA and employers say the commission’s new rules threaten to delay the hiring of workers needed to replace retirees and avert labor shortages that contributed to last summer’s gridlock at New York-New Jersey container terminals.

The Metro association said in a court filing that the commission’s actions have prevented employers from hiring ILA maintenance-repair mechanics, and that labor shortages could drive business from the port. Metro lawyers accused the commission of “mission creep” and “regulatory adventurism.”

The NYSA, ILA and Metro association have asked U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton for a preliminary injunction to prevent the commission for applying its new hiring rules to ILA mechanics until the lawsuit is settled. A hearing on the injunction request is set for Thursday.

The commission’s push for more workforce diversity is part of the crime watchdog agency’s broader effort to transform a waterfront culture that commission officials say remains susceptible to hiring favoritism and organized crime influence.

The ILA and employers say waterfront crime has faded since the commission was created in 1953. They also say the port’s overall longshore workforce is 22.7 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 9.7 percent female, and that minority percentages will rise under a six-year contract the NYSA and ILA signed last April.

The new contract specifies that 51 percent of new hires will be veterans, 25 percent ILA referrals, and 24 percent NYSA referrals. The Waterfront Commission insists the ILA will still have too much of a role in referrals under the new contract.

Commission officials have noted that minority representation among ILA locals in the port is uneven, and have said several port locals remain overwhelmingly white because of friends-and-family job referrals through the union.

In seeking dismissal of the NYSA-ILA-Metro lawsuit, the commission called the litgation “just another attempt … to prevent the commission from fulfilling its mandate to ensure the fair hiring of diverse workforce in the port.”

Longshore employment practices in New York-New Jersey reflect a complicated system that has evolved over decades — often through disputes between the industry and the Waterfront Commission, an institution unique to the port.

The commission was created in 1953 to curb criminal activity detailed in investigations that inspired the movie “On The Waterfront.” The industry-funded agency operates a police force and regulates hiring in the port.

The Waterfront Commission has controled the size of the port workforce since 1966, when employers were anxious to minimize costs under the ILA’s guaranteed annual income program.

Though GAI disappeared two decades ago, the commission says it still needs to control the longshore register to prevent labor surpluses that breed job-selling and other rackets.

A key issue in the current litigation concerns ILA mechanics hired by M&R contractors in the Metro association. Since 1969 these workers have been in a special “A” register that is separate from the one the commission maintains for longshoremen and clerks employed by NYSA members.

Over industry objections, the commission amended its rules in September to require employers to certify that job applicants had been selected and referred in compliance with antidiscrimination laws. The commission also said M&R mechanics were subject to the same antidiscrimination hiring standards as employers of longshoremen and clerks.

Employers say that by requiring them to certify that every step of the recruitment, hiring and referral process is discrimination-free, the change effectively restricts the ILA’s longstanding role in the process.

The NYSA, ILA and Metro association said the commission’s rule change conflicts with their labor contracts, which allow the ILA to refer job candidates to employers for screening and referral to the Waterfront Commission for criminal background checks.

The commission said word-of-mouth recruitment of ILA mechanics and union referrals to employees is a modern version of the 1950s hiring shape-ups that the Waterfront Commission Act outlawed.

The dispute between the industry and the Waterfront Commission has thrown a wrench into efforts to hire workers at the port.

The commission said this month it would grant immediate approval of only 225 of the 682 new longshoremen’s and clerk’s jobs requested by the NYSA and ILA. The action apparently was designed to ensure that ILA referrals under the new contract didn’t spill over into the 51 percent set aside for veterans.

The industry-commission standoff has stalled the hiring of M&R mechanics employed by Metro members and represented by ILA locals 1804-1 in New Jersey and the smaller Local 1814 in Brooklyn. Local 1804-1’s president, Dennis Daggett, is a son of ILA President Harold Daggett, who headed the local for years.

Harold Daggett has jousted with commission officials, and said during one acrimonious commission hearing in 2010 that the agency was “the closest thing to communism that you will see in the United States of America.”

On another occasion, Daggett said New York Waterfront Commissioner Ron Goldstock, a former chief of the New York Organized Crime Strike Force, had a vendetta against the ILA and “doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”

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