Waterfront Commission, Industry Spar Over Lawsuit

Waterfront Commission, Industry Spar Over Lawsuit

A new skirmish has broken out in a joint employer-union lawsuit challenging the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor’s revised rules for hiring dockworkers in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The Waterfront Commission claims the latest version of the lawsuit by the New York Shipping Association and the International Longshoremen’s Association misrepresents the commission’s stance on hiring new workers.

In an unusual move, the commission threatened to seek court sanctions that could include payment of legal costs for filing a “frivolous” claim.

The NYSA and ILA insist they haven’t misrepresented anything. They say they’re challenging what they claim is a vague commission order on its plans for approving new hiring.

The squabble is a sidelight to a bitter legal fight between the commission, created in 1953 to combat crime on the docks, and the NYSA, the ILA and the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association.

The NYSA, the ILA and the Metro association have asked a federal court in Newark, N.J., to block the commission’s new hiring rules. The commission has asked U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton to dismiss the case. A ruling is not expected before March.

The Waterfront Commission says it wants to make the port workforce more diverse, and that it has the authority to enforce equal opportunity hiring. The commission’s proposed changes would reduce the ILA’s role in referring prospective workers for employers to screen and recommend for the commission’s background checks and licensing.

Employers and the ILA say the port’s longshore workforce already is diverse, with port-wide minority representation of more than one-third. They contend the commission is exceeding its authority and illegally interfering with their local collective bargaining agreement.

The industry-commission standoff has complicated the hiring of dockworkers needed to ease labor shortages that have plagued the New York-New Jersey port for months.

The Waterfront Commission’s threat to seek court sanctions against the NYSA and ILA stems from the commission’s Dec. 3 action on a NYSA-ILA request for permission to hire 682 new ILA members — 532 longshoremen and 150 clerks.

The commission’s order authorized the immediate addition of 150 longshoremen and 75 clerks, with the balance of the longshoremen and an unspecified number of checkers to be added later “in light of the expected April 2014 retirements.”

NYSA, ILA say commission’s order should be clearer

The NYSA and ILA were pleased that the commission authorized new hires but want assurances that all 682 dockworkers will be added. The employers and union say the “whereases” in the first part of the document’s acknowledged that the commission agreed that all of the requested workers were needed, but that the actual order was less definite.

Donato Caruso, attorney for the NYSA, and Kevin Marrinan, attorney for the ILA, said that if the commission unambiguously commits to allowing all 682 workers, they’d withdraw the disputed count from the lawsuit and declare the issue moot.

“The commission’s determination must be unambiguous, final, and complete,” Caruso and Marrinan said in a letter to the commission. They said that “every time the industry believes that it has reached an agreement with the commission concerning the hiring of new workers, the commission’s concurrence vanishes or becomes subject to additional conditions.”

Most of the requested new hires would replace workers who have left the workforce in the last six years or are scheduled to retire by April. The April retirees accepted enhanced pensions under a new local contract that was signed last year after a year of difficult bargaining that barely averted a coastwide strike.

No emergency injunction on mechanics’ hiring

Separately from the dispute over the hiring of longshoremen and clerks, Judge Wigenton refused on Dec. 19 to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the Waterfront Commission from applying new rules that would restrict ILA referrals of applicants for jobs as maintenance-repair mechanics.

Wigenton ruled that she was not persuaded that “irreparable harm” would result if the new rules took effect before she rules on the commission’s request to dismiss the NYSA-ILA-Metro lawsuit challenging the rules.

While the lawsuit over the new hiring rules remains unsettled employers have continued to send applicants in the first group of 150 longshoremen and 75 clerks for background checks by the commission, which has been processing the applicants.

Since the Waterfront Commission’s current leadership took charge more than 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 the waterfront’s culture.

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.

The NYSA-ILA contract covers about 3,500 longshoremen and ILA clerks. About 1,000 ILA mechanics are covered by a separate contract between the Metro association and ILA locals 1804-1 in New Jersey and 1814 in Brooklyn.

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