If there was ever an anachronistic government body waiting to be placed in mothballs, it’s the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. Established way back in 1953, the WCNYH was tasked with keeping mobsters from infiltrating the docks. That was its sole responsibility.
But that was 60 long years ago. Ike was president. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was still destroying lives. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Elvis Presley hadn’t cut a record yet. Admittedly, a different era.
Surprisingly, the WCNYH is still alive and kicking. In fact, the ILA and New York Shipping Association (NYSA, representing port employers) are locked in a dispute with the WCNYH over the hiring of some 680 new employees. While the ILA and their employers want these people hired quickly and put to work in order to maintain the competitive position of the New Jersey/New York ports, the WCNYH insists on lengthy background checks to make sure job applicants don’t have mob ties.
This might have been a productive exercise back in the days of the Marlon Brando movie, On the Waterfront (1954), which depicted mobsters (Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly) running roughshod over the longshoremen’s union, but those days are over.
Not only are unions, by and large, wildly democratic and corruption-free (even the Teamsters now adhere to the “one man, one vote” configuration), but the WCNYH ain’t exactly the committee you want to put in charge of such an investigation.
In 2009, the New York Times (August 8, 2009) reported that the New York State Inspector General, following a two-year investigation, had found “extensive illegal, corrupt and unethical behavior on the part of the Waterfront Commission.” As a consequence, the majority of the WCNYH’s executive staff were fired. That’s not something you want to see in an oversight committee.
But the part that disturbs outside observers is the role of the government. Its role should be to assist and support working people, not impede them from landing decent jobs in this post-recessionary economy. When it comes to labor relations, it’s bad enough having a woefully under-staffed and over-worked NLRB unable to crack down on management violations, but when the WCNYH comports itself like a textbook example of your classic, self-absorbed bureaucracy, it rankles.
Consider that old maxim: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is going to look like a nail to you.” Unfortunately, that mentality seems to be the mind-set of the WCNYH. Just as the Spanish Inquisition was dedicated to exposing infidels, and the HUAC rejoiced in identifying people as “Commies,” the WCNYH was created solely to ferret out mobsters.
And the Commission is going to do its damnedest to find them, even if they don’t exist, and even if it means stalling a process that desperately needs to be expedited. While no one is conflating the Waterfront Commission with HUAC, let’s do the math. When HUAC ran out of Commies and “Comsymps” (Communist sympathizers), it ceased to exist. Accordingly, when the WCNYH runs out of waterfront mobsters, it will also cease to exist, and these bureaucrats are going to have to go out and find real jobs.
The president of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades council has viewed the matter to be sufficiently serious to warrant writing personally to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, asking them to intervene in the dispute. While the early signs (for a multitude of reasons) have not been especially promising, this thing has a ways to go. One hopes common sense comes to the rescue.
If government agencies wish to address corruption and fraud, more power to them. We all agree that eliminating corruption is a good thing. But if they are truly serious about such an endeavor, instead of sniffing around the docks, they should do it right. They should set up shop on Wall Street.
David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org