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A gusty November wind was churning New York harbor into choppy, white-foamed waves last week as a group of members of the tugboat workers union talked about the dangers of their trade.
They sat in a cramped second-floor conference room at the headquarters of Local 333 of the United Marine Division of the International Longshoremen's Association on Bay Street in Staten Island. A block away, waves were beating against the bulkhead, making their own convincing argument about the potential perils of working the harbor waters.
"A couple of years ago, a deckhand named Larry Bennett was making up the tow between a pair of barges up the Hudson, when he slipped and fell in between," Mike Brandon, a union official, was saying. "He was a real experienced guy, a Vietnam vet. He knew how to work safe. But the barges came together, and he got crushed. They pulled him out and tried to give him CPR, but his chest had just been flattened. There was nothing there."
Then there was Jake Lazarus in 2003, who was lashing a barge to a tug out in the harbor when he also fell. "The barge came up and he just went under," said Brandon. "They found him a week later, floating over here in Stapleton."
Brandon, 52, has more than 30 years working aboard tugs and ferries. "Look, I know what I'm doing out there and I'm very careful," he said. "But one night, I'm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard pulling in when a big tire on the side of a barge hooks on a piling. It snaps and sails like a Frisbee, knocking me right over. That East River tide swept me right out. Luckily, there were people around, but I was all the way down by the Domino Sugar plant before they got to me."
"It happens quick," added James Beatty, 32, who is the third generation in his family to work aboard the city's tugs. "Which is why you need more than one set of eyes out there. You share the work and you're not as tired—you're more alert."
There aren't nearly as many tugboats plying city waters as there were a generation ago. But they're still a steady presence both day and night, slipping past the skyline, towing oil barges, scows filled with stone and scrap, pushing huge cranes too big to move any other way.
The question of just how many hands are needed to run a tugboat safely is at the heart of a tough 10-week-old strike now being waged between Local 333 and a company called Kosnac Tug. At the end of August, the company told the union that it wanted to cut one deckhand from each of its five-man crews. The union contract for boats that operate 24 hours and stay out on the water for a week at a time, like Kosnac's, has always called for two deckhands in addition to a captain, a mate, and an engineer. "It's an unsafe practice—it's that simple," said Bill Harrigan, 40, the local's president and general manager. "They keep watering down the crews. The deckhand is the lowest position on a boat, so when they remove someone, he's the one who's got to pick up the slack. He's got to assist the engineer, he's got to shop for the grub. He's out there all alone—often at night, in bad weather—jumping from barge to barge."
Most tugs had even bigger crews—a full-time cook and an assistant engineer as well—until the late 1980s. After a disastrous year-long strike, the local gave way on those staff slots. In the years after that loss, the union's old leadership was reluctant to pick fights with tug operators. Like a lot of the city's unions that saw their strength ebb in direct proportion to declining membership, they opted just to hold on to what they had, and not challenge employers who cut corners. "They just kind of let things slide," said Harrigan, an engineer from Portland, Maine, who followed his father into the tugboat business.
The local's jurisdiction extends from Maine down to Philadelphia, which kept most of the 2,200 members from being able to attend meetings. Harrigan, however, made it a point to show up. "I thought there were a lot of things the local was ignoring." Together with Steve Oravets, a tug captain who is also the third generation in his family to work aboard tugs, he put out a newsletter called The Harbor Herald, which they distributed up and down the coast. Harrigan was elected to the local's executive board in 2002. In 2008, he ran on a slate with Oravets, Brandon, and other rebels, calling for the union to enforce its contract. They won by 19 votes. The election was overturned on a technicality. "So we had to run again," he said. "The second time, we won by 325 votes."
One of the first things he did was knock down a wall on the first floor of the union's offices where members had had to pass muster with someone behind a glass window screening those seeking entry to their own union. He replaced it with a sitting room and a wide-screen TV to give off-duty harbor workers a place to relax.
The new administration was mindful of the bad economic tides as contracts came up for renewal. "We did things easy," said Harrigan. Likewise, when Kosnac, a firm with just two dozen employees, sat down for talks, the union acknowledged that it was a small company struggling in a lousy economy. "The guys agreed to take a wage freeze to help out," he said.
Beatty, who has worked for Kosnac for five years, said he wanted no part of a strike until he heard about the company's demand to cut staff. "There was no way we could go along with it," he said. "I'm out there a week at a time. I know how much tougher one less man makes the job. We just can't go any lower than we've already gone."
Like the union, Kosnac is a multigenerational affair. The current owner is Veronica Kosnac Raffone, whose grandfather founded the company. A couple of years ago, she hired a former president of the local, Charles Chilemmi, to serve as a top manager. Chilemmi ran Local 333 from 2000 to 2005 during a time when Harrigan and others were pushing hard for reforms; he also served as a $132,000-a-year vice president of the international union. "I think that's what this is about," she said. "I think it's a personal vendetta on the union's part."
As for the manning cuts, Kosnac said she is trying to stay competitive. "All of the nonunion boats run with four men," she said. "There are out-of-town boats coming into the harbor that operate with just three workers. I'd never do that, but we've lost out on lucrative contracts."
The union denies it's waging a vendetta. "We don't have a choice," said Beatty. "And it's not that they're not making money. They just want to make more. Kosnac used to be a great place to work. I loved my job. There's nothing like it. It's what I've always done. I like being on the water, the quiet, the peacefulness. You're in tight quarters among five people, but you're away from everyone else. The view is always spectacular. It's a different world. I know every corner of this harbor, places no one gets to see. My wife is always saying she doesn't understand when I come home after a week out on the tug why I want to go out fishing to relax."