Still On the Waterfront

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

Right behind Falcicchio in the vote tally for the council was a relative newcomer to the docks, a 29-year-old college graduate named Tony Perlstein, who previously worked as an organizer in the hotel employees, and Teamsters unions. Perlstein went to work at Global in 2003, shortly after the trusteeship was imposed, after hearing about the openings from friends in the labor movement. "I was looking for a job that paid a decent living, and I was also interested in what was going on in the union," he said.

Part of what intrigued him were events in rebellious ILA locals down South, where leaders had challenged the New York�based old-guard leadership over declining wages and benefits for younger members.

A year after he started on the docks, Perlstein helped lead protests against a new six-year master contract�the longest ever in ILA history�covering 15,000 workers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that called for new lower tiers for health benefits and lower starting wages for new members. The contract passed, but not by the wide margins predicted by ILA leaders. Locals in Charleston, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and Wilmington voted it down, as did Local 1588 in Bayonne.

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

Since then, Ken Riley, the president of Local 1422 in Charleston and a vice president of the international union, has demanded that the contract be reopened. "These new tiered wages are causing division in the ranks, and the longer the contract goes, the wider that gap is going to grow," he said.

Back in Bayonne, that kind of talk has resonated among younger longshoremen, who say they are angry that while they see the port booming around them, their own wage levels are falling. Last week, members of Local 1588 joined Perlstein in handing out copies of a newsletter produced by a union-wide group calling itself the Longshore Workers Coalition. Perlstein is a co-chair of the committee, along with Riley's brother Leonard, also a union activist. Among the goals the group seeks are direct elections of national officers, who are currently chosen by a select few on the executive committee, and the chance to improve wages before the current contract expires in 2010.

Under the contract, new workers start at $16 an hour but cap out at $21, well below the $28-an-hour rate enjoyed by the ever decreasing number of older members.

"When you've got five years in the industry, you are still $10 an hour behind the senior men. And you'll never hit that," said Virgil Maldonado. "To me, that contract was the worst."

For everyone, the work is sporadic. When ships are docked to be loaded or unloaded, the port bustles. Longshoremen work around the clock�with periodic breaks or "blows"�until the job is done. When the ships aren't there, they simply don't work. And while it's been busy of late, most members recall recent months when their income plummeted. And while longshoremen once enjoyed a port-wide seniority that allowed veterans to pick up work around the harbor, the union's current rules now limit it to within the individual port. That means when even senior workers at slow terminals shape up�wait to be hired�at busier ports, like those across Newark Bay at Port Newark or Port Elizabeth, they go to the bottom of the list and often never get called.

"We have some members who are making under the official U.S. poverty rate," acknowledged Stewart, the local's deputy administrator. "They're not even able to make their qualifying hours to get medical benefits."

For that reason, McGuire argued vigorously against a combined request made this year by the New York Shipping Association and the ILA national leadership to register another 300 new workers.

"We opposed that as hard as we could," said McGuire. "We thought that was an outrage. How can anybody argue that employers need more longshoremen, when they are not hiring our guys often enough to allow them to make a living wage?"

Many members from Local 1588 went to a Waterfront Commission hearing in January to protest the staffing request. There, they heard the 83-year-old president of their national union, John Bowers, meander and contradict himself in his arguments. At one point, a transcript of the hearing shows, Bowers acknowledged that some of his members are already getting so little work they have qualified for unemployment benefits. Asked by the Waterfront Commission's counsel how he felt about that, Bowers stumbled.

"How do I feel about it? I would like to be able to work in the industry. I don't want unemployment," said the union president, before adding: "Did any of my people line up to come in and give answers to that question?"

An ILA spokesman declined comment, but a union lawyer, James Cohen, who argued its case against the Local 1588 trusteeship, defended the leader. "Everyone has stressful days. He is clearly competent."

Bowers is one of the old warhorses the government has long sought to dislodge from his ILA post. His father was Mickey Bowers, a much feared gunman on Manhattan's West Side in the '40s and '50s, who, together with his cousin Harold, controlled all the shipping piers north of 42nd Street on the Hudson River. Shakedowns of workers and shippers were routine, and so many people were shot or beaten on those docks that the union was known throughout the city as the "Pistol Local."

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