What caused the wildcat on the docks?

Eugene Dardenne explains what led to a short-lived wildcat strike by members of the International Longshoremen's Association at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Longshore workers in a job action at the Port of New York and New JerseyLongshore workers in a job action at the Port of New York and New Jersey

WHEN MORE than 1,000 members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) shut down six New York harbor container terminals on January 29, observers were left scrambling for an explanation.

There are no current negotiations taking place with management, the New York Shipping Association (NYSA), and no picket signs or press releases shined light on any grievances leaving the cause for the stoppage open to speculation.

From management, all efforts turned immediately to obtaining an injunction against the strike rather than investigating or addressing any underlying cause. For the union's part, the International leadership was quick to disown the action, encouraging workers to return to their stations--and with as little ceremony or explanation as this curious walkout had begun earlier in the day, they did just that.

Abortive as it may have seemed, the half-day on the docks came on the heels of the previous week's massive snowstorm and, with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cargo already delayed, the sleeping power of New York's 3,500 longshore workers was quickly realized.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey website boasts that in 2014, 3.3 million containers carrying more than $200 billion worth of goods came through the harbor. Numbers like that make the ILA's New York and New Jersey locals some of the most potentially disruptive workers in the world.

But when compared to their more militant West Coast brethren in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the ILA doesn't typically exercise that potential, making Friday's action all the more important to understand in context.

Without talking points from the union, rumors attributed the motive to working conditions, outsourced labor and union jurisdiction. But in the weekend's press coverage of the short-lived wildcat strike, those most familiar with the ports identify as the strike's intended target not the Shipping Association, but the port police at the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor.

One ILA spokesman corroborated the suspicion, giving credit for the action to the longshoremen's "disgust with the harassment of the Commission." But for a work stoppage that was quickly declared illegal, union officials were careful to highlight that this was a spontaneous, uncoordinated action for which neither the local nor international leadership can be held accountable.

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AS OF the morning of February 1, the Waterfront Commission itself was opening an investigation into the cause of the strike. Few expect the commission's own behavior to come under any scrutiny.

The Waterfront Commission is a unique feature of New York's ports. Set up in 1953 to combat the influence of organized crime, the Commission has policed corruption on the docks with more or less vigor at any given time, depending on its own political alignment, the needs of the port owners and the influence exerted by even more powerful interests with a stake in the smoothest functioning of one of the world's busiest ports.

In more than 60 years, the Commission itself has come under repeated fire for its own cronyism and has somehow, despite its substantial profile and resources, managed never to rid the docks of organized crime.

Since its inception, combatting mafia influence at the ILA has been the cynical cover for less commendable efforts by the Commission. From blacklisting leftists during the McCarthy era to more recent efforts to indict the "Work Relief Structure" that currently protects dockworkers from layoffs, the Commission's priorities have only nominally been about combatting nepotism and organized crime.

In actuality, like the police and court system more generally, the Commission exists to weigh on the side of capital against labor, employing anti-crime veneer as justification.

As a result of this arrangement, the Commission and the ILA leadership grew to co-exist comfortably enough, and graft at both organizations was an open secret. In 2009, after decades of relative peace, political leaders in New York and New Jersey decided to root out corruption at the Commission and return it to its nominal purpose. New York Inspector General Joseph Fisch acknowledged the hypocrisy: "Instead of ridding the waterfront of corruption, this agency itself was corrupt."

In the years since, the Commission has ramped back up its own detective work and has teamed with the FBI and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman to root out nepotism on the docks. With that in mind, one anonymous official quoted in the New York Times saw the strike as retaliation: "This is a group that often acts irrationally. Flexing your muscles because there is an investigation going on--how stupid is that? It's a crazy group."

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DESPERATE? MAYBE. But not irrational and not that crazy. Just as the Waterfront Commission was more interested in keeping Brooklyn's radical Black and immigrant dockworkers out of the ILA in 1953 than it was in combatting the influence of organized crime, the Commission's latest investigations have their own stated and unstated purposes as well.

Officially, the ILA faces charges of racism and favoritism in its hiring practices. But tracking recent reports and statements from the Commission, one can reasonably conclude that it has its sights set as much on improving the efficiency and competitiveness of the harbor's container terminals as on curbing any nepotism from the union hall. And this begins to get at the root of the recent walkout.

Ten years ago, Panama's decision to widen and deepen its canal marked the start of the marine port industry's current "arms race" to accommodate the larger ships that will soon be docking up and down the East Coast. Until now, the largest U.S.-bound container ships confined their route to the trans-Pacific trade routes that terminate at the ports of Oakland, Long Beach or Seattle-Tacoma, with trucks and trains completing the journey to inland and East Coast destinations.

But with an all-water route to the eastern seaboard large enough to accommodate the super tankers with near triple the cargo capacity of the previous generation, trade routes are poised for a dramatic reconfiguration. And just months out from the ribbon-cutting ceremonies that will mark the canal's completion, the ports of New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Savannah, Fort Lauderdale and Miami are in a pitched battle to attract the cargo.

Physically, New York Harbor has struggled to keep up with the others. With delays to the project to lift the span of the Bayonne Bridge, Port Jersey will be the only one of the harbor's terminals capable of receiving the biggest "post-Panamax" vessels. According to the latest estimates, the Bayonne Bridge project will not be completed before mid-2019.

Until then, Port Elizabeth and Howland Hook terminals (already deep enough for the anticipated traffic) will not be eligible to receive the taller ships. All this compounds the existing pressure building from New York's competitors in the South, where non-union wages and open shop rules give management a freer hand to keep costs down.

The strategy of New York's port owners throughout has been to supplement the infrastructure expansion (mostly paid for with federal tax dollars) with dock technology of their own.

For example, at the Howland Hook terminal on Staten Island, $350 million has been invested in recent years for higher capacity cranes and other improvements to the facility. These investments are made with big expectations for reduced labor costs, and the only stakeholders standing in the way are the men and women whose jobs are at stake.

The Waterfront Commission merely represents the front line of capital's new assault on the longshore workers who make New York's ports function. The bosses are cynically invoking union democracy and civil rights to justify their encroachments against the ILA, as "efficiency experts" lurk behind them, salivating at the prospect of a leaner, cheaper waterfront.

As captains of the shipping industry anticipate the new order coming with the canal's expansion, many of them are eager to escape the power of the West Coast's ILWU, whose militancy poses a routine threat to reliable trade and commerce.

The January wildcat strike serves as a reminder that their more conservative East Coast counterparts hold the same potential, if not the same willingness to wield it. But as the East Coast's race to the bottom accelerates, expect more of the unexpected.