Still On the Waterfront

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

The gangsters running the local even had a methodology for their intimidation. A government wiretap in 2001 caught a pair of DiGilio's successors sitting in an office on the docks discussing how to scare members who asked questions at meetings. "You gotta place guys all over the place," Nick Furina, a hiring agent for a major employer on the Bayonne piers was heard instructing Ralph Esposito, the shop steward representing more than 180 members working for Global Terminal. "Every time someone goes up to make a beef," said Furina, "they gotta rebut them. Say, 'Ah, why don'tcha sit down? Blah blah blah.' "

Given that venal and violent history, ILA Local 1588 in Bayonne would seem an unlikely place for rank-and-file democracy to take root. But that's exactly what's happening. For the first time in the long-suffering history of the International Longshoremen's Association in the metropolitan area, a local union, under the watchful oversight of a federal monitor, is taking its first steps toward becoming a democratically run, rank-and-file-controlled organization.

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

The transformation is occurring at the same time that the national longshoremen's union is under intense pressures to mend its bad old crime-cozy ways. The pressure stems from a pending federal racketeering lawsuit in Brooklyn that seeks to have the ILA placed under trusteeship, as well as from a growing insurgency within the union, based in Southern ports like Baltimore and Charleston, where local leaders have challenged recent contracts that shortchanged newer workers on wages and benefits.

In the Bayonne union local, the ones pushing hardest for change are the dockworkers themselves. After generations of "D&D"�the deaf-and-dumb approach adopted by the beaten-down workers depicted in On the Waterfront"�many are finally speaking out and trying to tackle the everyday on-the-job problems that their former leaders ignored.

"Most of us would always try to fade to the back of the crowd," said Virgil Maldonado, 27, a crane operator who has been in the local for 14 years. "If you was even to ask a question at the union meeting, one of the people who was at the meeting, or one of their soldiers, they call you at work or home, confronting you, saying, 'What are you doing opening your mouth? You should know better.' Then after that, you won't be working for a while. I know I am sick of this shit. And a lot of guys are sick of this shit."

Maldonado's comments came earlier this month as he and seven of his co-workers sat around a dining-room table in his Jersey City row house less than a mile from the piers to talk with the Voice about current union events as well as safety issues, wage rates, and the enforcement of seniority rules. Across the table, Guido Sanchez, 24, an ex-Marine who was among the first troops into Iraq and whose father spent 30 years as a longshoreman, nodded in agreement. "The attitude was, you got a job, you keep your mouth shut," said Sanchez, a longshoreman since 2003. "There are still people who are scared to even come to a meeting like this," he added.

"That's how it always was," said Tommy Hanley, 66, who started working on the docks when he was 17, three years after he portrayed Marlon Brando's young pal in the memorable rooftop pigeon-coop scenes of On the Waterfront.

"You say something," said Hanley, "and someone in the back of the room says, 'Sit down. You're doing all right. You're working, ain'tcha?' "

Last spring, Hanley, who for years lost out on hours and promotions because he refused to pay off the mob's henchmen, was elected a shop steward at Global Terminal, the local's largest employer, replacing a long line of mob-selected enforcers.

"It was the first legit elections I seen in my 49 years on the piers," said Hanley.

The unlikely revolution at Local 1588 began three years ago when U.S. District Court Judge John Martin was presented with evidence of massive corruption at the union and agreed to appoint a federal administrator to run the 450-member local's affairs. The judge's orders were to do whatever was necessary to rid the local of mob influence and set it on a path to self-rule.

It wasn't the first time a judge had tried to force-feed democracy on an ILA local. Some form of federal oversight, either court-appointed monitors or ombudsmen, has been designated for a half-dozen other wayward ILA locals in New York over the past 15 years, to little noticeable effect. Despite the interventions, mobsters have continued popping up. Three years ago, acting Gambino crime family boss Peter Gotti and several of his cohorts were convicted of swindling ILA members with the help of the former leader of Brooklyn's local union, who had solemnly pledged to enact government-ordered reforms.

But by the time then U.S. Attorney James Comey filed contempt charges against Local 1588 in 2002, Judge Martin had already run out of patience. Government attorney Beth Goldman pointed out that the local's leaders had agreed to a consent decree back in 1992, pledging that they would not associate with organized crime figures or engage in racketeering. In 1999, however, the same Local 1588 official who had signed the original agreement pled guilty to helping embezzle up to $1.5 million out of the union on behalf of Joe Lore, the blowtorch-bearing Genovese crime family associate.

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