Still On the Waterfront

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

Martin railed at the union's lawyers about the lapse: "What did the union do? The international do? Nada. Nothing."

To run Local 1588 under court oversight, Martin chose former New York City police commissioner Robert McGuire. Like most such court-selected trustees, McGuire brought a straight-arrow reputation, a wealth of law enforcement experience, and zero union background. In one of his past jobs, he had served as head of the Pinkerton security company, the private detective agency that provided guns for hire to employers battling labor's earliest organizing drives. The longshoremen at the local weren't impressed.

His reception ranged from "neutral to hostile," McGuire told the Voice. "Even the good people were very suspicious of us. There was resentment. You know, 'Oh, the suits are coming.' "

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

McGuire brought along a deputy, a thoughtful veteran ex�federal prosecutor named Robert Stewart, who had worked on one of the longest and toughest union trusteeships in the 1980s, that of Teamsters Local 560 in New Jersey, the former fiefdom of the late Genovese kingpin Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano.

"These people have every right to be cynical," said Stewart. "Even in DiGilio's days, the government was around here and yet the wiseguys kept coming back. It bred a lot of cynicism. The members' attitude was wait and see."

There were some quick results. Because the union is the chief sponsor of new workers, job candidates had to get past the palace guard at the local in order to be hired. In a wave of hiring after the trusteeship, many new faces, including more minorities, made it onto the piers. One of them was Manny Ferreras, 35, whose father had worked his entire career as a longshoreman in the Bayonne local and had long tried to get his son on the job. "He would talk to those guys and say, 'Hey, my son would like to get in the industry.' And they would say, 'Whatever,' and you know, put it on the back burner," said Ferreras. "It wouldn't happen. The people who were in power, they did whatever they want."

McGuire and Stewart spent much of the first two years in a straight law-and-order approach, "trying to get the rest of the bad guys out," as McGuire put it. These included several corrupt local officials who had stepped down from their elected posts but had finagled high-paying union and management jobs elsewhere on the waterfront.

Then, in an effort to build some new leadership within the local, McGuire did something other court-appointed trustees have hesitated to do: He went in search of a full-time union expert who could train members to take the reins of their own local. He found one in Carl Biers, a soft-spoken former director of the Association for Union Democracy, a nonprofit organization that aids the rank and file.

One of Biers's first tasks was to organize elections for new shop stewards, part of an effort by McGuire and Stewart to break the old guard's control.

Up on the roof: Brando as Terry Malloy and a 14-year-old Tommy Hanley tend the pigeons.
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe

The elections were a risk, McGuire said. "The gamble was that the people elected would not be tied to the organized-crime people and would want a clean local."

But in contests held last spring, the results suggested that the wiseguys were losing at least some of their grip. At the Auto Marine Terminal where BMW unloads its new vehicles, the incumbent steward, the nephew of the former president who pled guilty in the shakedown scheme, was soundly defeated by an insurgent, then beaten again by an even wider margin when he sought the assistant-steward post.

At Global Terminal, the main deep-sea cargo handler in the port, Tommy Hanley, long the outsider, threw his hat in the ring to challenge another incumbent steward. After the race resulted in two successive dead heats, McGuire and Stewart decided to split the job, with Hanley and his rival each serving six-month terms.

There was a similar tussle in the race for assistant steward at Global in which two sons of other former top officials who pled guilty to mob corruption sought the post. But both candidates were overwhelmingly defeated by another respected veteran longshoreman, Anthony Falcicchio, who had long steered clear of the wiseguys.

When McGuire and his team held a vote last September for an advisory council to recommend new local bylaws and watchdog collective-bargaining issues, Falcicchio was the top vote-getter, an achievement he chalked up to a desire by the members to put the past behind them.

"I made a good living on the docks my whole life," said Falcicchio, 50. "But when it came time for advancement, if you weren't a player in the game, or you weren't involved with them directly, you didn't get the promotions you were entitled to."

Falcicchio's father and two uncles worked on the docks before him. Their advice was not to try to get ahead under the old boys' clique. He took it. "You made a living, you brought home a paycheck, and if you wanted to remain out of trouble and stay safe you minded your business and did your job," he said. "Some of these people who got in trouble, they started out innocent. Then they get caught up in these swindles and things. And we always had to take the fall for them. I seen a pattern there, and the pattern wasn't longevity. So I always kept my nose out of it."

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