Still On the Waterfront

Long plagued by Johnny Friendlys, dockworkers fight to take back a mob-infested union

Just south of the Statue of Liberty, the huge white shipping cranes of New Jersey's container terminals arch into the sky. Even in the summer haze, the cranes still dominate the horizon. Their 200-foot-tall white hoists slant up and east, offering a kind of silent salute to the torch clenched in the statue's upraised arm.

Most of New York's shipping is conducted on the Jersey side of the harbor now. More than $130 billion in cargo passed through the port last year, breaking yet another record, though you'd hardly know it by living in New York City. Most of the city's own piers fell into disuse decades ago, leaving behind rotting bulkheads that now mostly provide fodder for recreational and development schemes. Along with the rest of the country, most New Yorkers got their first and best peek at a bustling container port last year in Steven Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds, which opened with shots of Tom Cruise as a longshoreman high above the ground, working the controls of a giant container crane.

That scene was actually filmed across the bay in Red Hook, where several cranes still protrude from the Brooklyn shore. But in the movie, when Cruise climbs down from his lofty perch he is suddenly in Bayonne, part of the thriving network of New Jersey container terminals that account for the vast bulk of water-borne cargo moving through the harbor.

The new longshoremen: Left to right, Manny Ferreras, Virgil Maldonado, and Tony Perlstein
photo: Nicholas Burnham
The new longshoremen: Left to right, Manny Ferreras, Virgil Maldonado, and Tony Perlstein

Measured by the number of giant metal containers in which most cargo is shipped, the Port of New York and New Jersey has experienced a whopping 39 percent increase in volume since 2001. Driving that boom has been shipping from Asia, especially China, which alone accounted for nearly 23 percent of the port's overall cargo volume last year, much of it products bound for big-box stores like Wal-Mart, the nation's largest importer.

Yet even as commerce has burgeoned and the geography has shifted, the most constant and nagging problem in New York's port has remained the same: the mob. Three-quarters of a century ago, the American Mafia started wrapping its tentacles around the waterfront's business, and it has maintained much of its grasp ever since. Despite scores of investigations, convictions, and anti-crime regulations, the mob still swaggers along the piers, displaying its clout in ways that are only somewhat more sophisticated than the brutal tactics exhibited more than 50 years ago in On the Waterfront.

One of the places where the mob has been most insidious and persistent is the docks along the border of Jersey City and Bayonne. Four years ago, a probe by New Jersey authorities and the bi-state Waterfront Commission resulted in criminal charges and convictions against eight mob-tied figures who dominated the Bayonne longshoremen's union local, shaking down workers for $50-a-week kickbacks, much the way Lee J. Cobb's character, Johnny Friendly, did in the movie. The case had an air of depressing inevitability about it since among those who later pled guilty was the local's then new president, the first to hold a college degree, and someone the other gangsters referred to as the "altar boy."

The shakedown case came just three years after another grimly predictable racket was exposed. In that one, a prior group of local union leaders admitted that they had routinely paid 50 percent of their salaries to a Genovese crime family figure who installed his girlfriend as the local's office manager and put her in charge of all day-to-day affairs.

So total was the control of Genovese mobster Joseph Lore over Local 1588 of the International Longshoremen's Association that he repeatedly had the local's modest two-story offices on John F. Kennedy Boulevard remodeled so he could collect a share of the contracts. The union satraps in Lore's thrall joked that the offices were so poshly over-renovated that it was their "Taj Mahal."

But it wasn't always a joking matter. Lore's designated hitter as head of the local was a longshoreman named John "John-John" Angelone, who was re-elected four times without opposition even though he held the post in name only. Angelone later admitted he wasn't allowed to look at the union's books and had to kick back most of his pay to Lore. "Whatever was to be done in the union had to go through Joe," Angelone confessed at a 2003 federal hearing on the local.

Why had he been so compliant? "He would take a blowtorch to my pubic hairs," said Angelone on the witness stand. Had he believed that? "Yeah, I believed him. Many times he would take a blowtorch in front of you, if you didn't bow your head and turn your head. He would say, 'OK, OK, I'm not asking the question, it's an order, OK?' "

Given the union's past, the hair-braising threats had a good deal of credibility. Lore inherited his control of the local from a notorious Hudson County mobster and ex�prizefighter named John DiGilio, who, in turn, was alleged to have captured the organization from an Irish gangster whom he had lured to a meeting, never to return.

DiGilio's own demise came in 1988, when he was found floating facedown in the Hackensack River, a pair of bullets in his head. The murder came just a few weeks after DiGilio beat a federal rap in which his own designated president of the local, Donald Carson, was convicted of extortion. DiGilio's mob masters were allegedly angry over the affair because they had been grooming Carson, the son of a Bayonne cop, to someday run the entire national union. DiGilio paid the price.

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