The East Coast’s busiest port system ground to a halt on Friday, January 29th as thousands of longshoremen in New York and New Jersey walked off the job, disrupting the delivery of goods already delayed by the massive snowstorm which kept the ports closed earlier in the week. The walkout caught many people involved with port operations by surprise, and the reasons behind the action remained shrouded in intrigue, with even officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey struggling to understand the situation. The ports reopened normally on Monday, February 1st.
While union officials issued statements saying that the action was a result of a dispute with the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a government agency, over its authority to oversee hiring practices on the docks, two officials familiar with the operation of the port suggested that it may be a backlash against a federal criminal investigation into the union’s leadership.
“It was totally unannounced and unexpected by anyone,” one of the officials said.
Over the years, the union, its leaders and its members have been targets of investigators. The current inquiry — which is being conducted by the Waterfront Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the office of the United States attorney in New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman — is focused on some of the union’s leaders, according to one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss a continuing investigation.
By walking out of work — after port operations were already backed up because of the blizzard last week — the action would have a greater effect than it might have at another time, according to people familiar with the operations; the longer the ports are shut down, the greater the impact.
The tension between the commission and the union is longstanding and has grown worse in recent years. Created in 1953 to combat corruption at the ports in response to exposés that inspired the 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” the commission needs to license all of the port’s thousands of dockworkers and the dozens of freight-handling, or stevedoring, companies that employ them.
The image of hundreds of longshoremen in hard hats and orange vests milling around the docks as trucks waiting to pick up goods lined up outside locked gates, containers piled high on shore and ships that were forced to wait at sea, harkened back to an earlier time when the ports of New York City were often at the center of the public’s attention and imagination.
While a shadow of its former self, with machines having long ago replaced many of the strong-armed stevedores and longshoremen, there are still about 4,000 dock workers. The size of the work force may be smaller than it was decades ago, but the ports remain the essential gateway to one of the busiest consumer corridors in the world — in 2014, the ports handled 3.3 million cargo containers carrying about $200 billion in goods.
As union leaders, workers and others involved in the port hierarchy huddled in meetings on Friday morning, the Port Authority issued an alert with little information other than the basic fact that the ports were closed. “Due to the current work stoppage in the port, no new trucks will be allowed to queue on port roadways,” the alert said. “Do not send trucks to the port at this time.”
Within an hour of the walkout, which took place at 11 a.m., lines of trucks were beginning to clog roadways and containers were stacking up at Port Newark, the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal, the Howland Hook Marine Terminal and the Port Jersey Port Authority Marine Terminal. The only port that remained in operation as of Friday afternoon was in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Mr. McNamara said the union’s members were upset not only with the commission’s oversight of hiring, but also with what he called a pattern of heavy-handedness.
In recent years, after the commission itself was troubled by scandals and accused of lax oversight, the body was revamped. In 2010, the commission held hearings that exposed favoritism, the granting of no-show jobs and organized-crime involvement on the docks. Since then, the commission has intensified its background checks and licensing requirements and has battled the workers’ union on various issues.
The most recent fight had to do with the commission’s contention that the union was engaged in discriminatory hiring practices. The union felt that the commission had overstepped its mandate. But a federal judge recently indicated that she believed the commission was within its rights to look into racial discrimination in hiring.