Still On the Waterfront
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.
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 exï¿½prizefighter 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.
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 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"ï¿½the deaf-and-dumb approach adopted by the beaten-down workers depicted in On the Waterfront"ï¿½many 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.
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.' "
McGuire brought along a deputy, a thoughtful veteran exï¿½federal 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."
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 Yorkï¿½based 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 contractï¿½the longest ever in ILA historyï¿½covering 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.
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 clockï¿½with periodic breaks or "blows"ï¿½until 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 upï¿½wait to be hiredï¿½at 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."
When federal prosecutors filed an earlier civil racketeering case in Manhattan Federal Court in 1990, they cited Bowers as an associate of the old Westies gang and alleged that he had sought to have a crew of Westies assassins murder a union rival (a plot that was never carried out, nor criminally charged).
Tommy Hanley remembers all those characters. He was born on a Greenwich Village block alongside other longshoremen's families, and his father worked on Pier 45 at the foot of Christopher Street. His dad disappeared in 1939, when Hanley was still an infant. Although he's never had proof, Hanley believes his old man was done in by a murderous waterfront thug named John "Cockeye" Dunn, who ruled the Lower Manhattan wharves until he went to the electric chair in 1949 for killing a stevedore whose job he coveted.
"I know my dad was a gambler, but he was also a rebel and he never took shit from anyone," said Hanley. "My mother was called up in the middle of the night and told not to raise any questions."
When Hanley was four years old, his mother moved to Hoboken, where the family lived in a walk-up tenement on Hudson Street, a block from the piers. He was a mischief-minded teenager of 14 when the film company shooting On the Waterfront set up on his block in 1953. They chose his building's roof as the site for the pigeon coop that Terry Malloy, Brando's brooding, semi-punch-drunk character, tended. Hanley went upstairs to see what was going on.
"I was curious. I wanted to know what they were doing. And they said they were going to make a movie there, and they hired me to feed the pigeons. I think they thought I was gonna steal something."
Hanley kept hanging around, and a few days later a sympathetic longshoreman who was helping director Elia Kazan cast the picture told him to go into Manhattan and try out for a role. "I went over to the Actors Studio on 52nd Street and met Kazan and [screenwriter Budd] Schulberg. They gave me like a test. They goaded my temper by saying they heard my father got killed because he was a squealer. They got me all riled up. I started fighting with them and throwing chairs. They thought it was great. And I thought, 'These people are crazy.' But I got the job. That was what Kazan wanted."
The pay was a small fortune to the Hanley family: He received $250 a week at a time when his mother owed eight months' back rentï¿½at $14 a monthï¿½for their flat. "We were destitute then. Periodically, we would have our gas and electric shut off."
Hanley was cast, appropriately, as Tommy, a rooftop urchin who worships Brando's Malloy, until the ex-fighter breaks the neighborhood code by testifying against the crooked Johnny Friendly and his crew. In the movie, Hanley throws a dead pigeon at a disconsolate Brando, famously shouting, "A pigeon for a pigeon."
Hanley said Brando was kind to him. "He was also very gracious to my mom. He sent us to see an agent. It didn't really come to anything, but he did that."
His role still generates occasional notice (including a recent New Yorker story), but the film itself meant little to Hanley when he was a teenager. "I didn't know what it was about. I didn't think about it."
Three years later, Hanley decided to go to work on the piers himself. Part of his motivation, he said, was to keep himself away from pals who were getting involved in serious robberies around the rail yards. Since he was still 17, he obtained forged papers saying he was 18. On the docks, he recalled, "there were a lot of hard characters. They used to break my balls. Like, 'Hey kid, whadda ya think you're a fuckin' actor? You're not in Hollywood now.' I had my share of shit with people down there. After I hit a couple of guys with something, though, they stayed away."
There were other lessons as well. "You learn all the vices on the waterfront," he said. "The first couple of days I worked on the docks, I went into a bar across the street. The bartender gave me a drink and introduced me to the guy who ran the numbers and the loan shark."
Hanley said that when the gang that controlled the Hoboken local tried to put the arm on him for a piece of his pay, he shook them off. "I never kicked back. I was asked to buy some tickets for different things when I first came over there. I said right away, 'I don't buy tickets, I don't go to dinners.' And they never bothered me."
Aiding his take-no-bullshit reputation was a little matter involving a pipe and a dispute between Hanley and an overbearing hiring agent who gave him a hard time. "Well, I hit the guy, and it wasn't well received. I almost got killed for it."
The matter was eventually worked out, and Hanley went on to make his living among the waterfront pirates without bending to their wills. For years he was consigned to what was then the toughest job in the pre-container days of break-bulk cargo, down in the hold of the ship wrestling loads with his hook. "I did a good job, I worked my way out," he said.
In 1970 he showed up to work one day and found that the pier had closed up on him. "I went home for a Thanksgiving weekend and the company moved out over the weekend to Brooklyn. There was a padlock on the door and nobody had any inkling."
He moved down to the piers along the Jersey Cityï¿½Bayonne border. There he watched as little John DiGilio, the gangster, screamed at local president Donald Carson, who was big enough to be nicknamed Moose. Carson, Hanley said, would show up at the piers wearing camel's hair coats like those worn by Lee J. Cobb's character in the movie.
"I think he really thought he was Johnny Friendly," said Hanley.
Today, Hanley could still pass for one of the hardworking grunts Kazan recruited off the docks as extras for the movie. He is a hefty six-footer with a broad, weather-ravaged face that has spent years looking into the sun and whipped by 45-mile-per-hour winds out on the uncovered piers.
When the hearings were being held in federal court in Manhattan on his local's trusteeship he went to watch the testimony. The union big shots were surprised. "They were shocked to see me," he said. "But it's my local. I wanted to see what was up."
Among the evidence the federal prosecutors showed to Judge Martin to demonstrate mob influence in the local was a series of transcripts of wiretapped conversations of the corrupt union officials and their mob handlers. In one January 2002 conversation, then local president John Timpanaro and Nick Furina, the Genovese family's enforcer, were heard nervously discussing Hanley's influence in the local. "Hanley," Furina was heard to say. "Don't worry about fucking Hanley. Tell him we'll do what the fuck we want."
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