National News

On the Waterfront, a Mob Watchdog Is Fighting to Survive

Posted January 17, 2018 8:12 p.m. EST

After 65 years of battling against the influence of organized crime on the docks, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor is fighting for its own survival. Its biggest threat has come not from the mob in Brooklyn or Bayonne, New Jersey, but from elected officials in Trenton.

On Monday, New Jersey’s outgoing Republican governor, Chris Christie, signed a bill that would withdraw New Jersey’s support for the commission, a move that could effectively mean its demise. The commission responded Tuesday by suing Christie’s Democratic successor, Philip D. Murphy, hours after he took the oath of office.

The commission’s dispute is not with Murphy himself but with the state’s effort to take away the commission’s power to police the shipping industry and its unionized workforce. In the complaint, filed in federal court in Newark, the commission said that the bill that Christie signed into law before leaving office would “cripple the commission.”

The commission argued that New Jersey cannot unilaterally decide to dissolve the agency because it was created through an interstate compact with New York. That compact, enacted by Congress in 1953, was a response to articles in The New York Sun that exposed the grip the mob had on commerce in the ports around New York City.

That influence may have subsided over the decades since the movie “On the Waterfront” dramatized life on the docks, but it has not been rooted out completely, the commission argued. It said in its complaint that the shipping industry in and around New York City “has been chronically plagued, historically and currently, by organized crime and labor racketeering.”

In the last few years, the commission investigated and helped to prosecute several union officials, shop stewards and foremen for a conspiracy to extort their own union members on behalf of the Genovese organized crime family, the complaint stated.

Barry H. Evenchick, a New Jersey lawyer who served on the commission several years ago, said that he “was convinced then and still am” of the need for the commission because “labor racketeering still goes on.”

Besides, Evenchick added, dissolving the commission would not save taxpayers any money because it is funded by a tax on cargo that comes into the ports. The bill that Christie signed calls for that money, about $13 million annually, to go instead to the New Jersey State Police, which would take on the responsibility of stamping out corruption in the industry.

The bill was the culmination of long-simmering hostility toward the commission from leaders of the main union for workers in the port, the International Longshoremen’s Association. The union’s relationship with the New York Shipping Association, which represents the big employers in the port, has often been contentious. But the two sides were united in their resentment of the waterfront commission.

“This is one of the few issues where labor and management see eye to eye,” said John J. Nardi, president of the shipping association, whose members include ship and terminal operators that employ about 3,500 workers.

The shipping association joined the union in suing the commission in 2014 to break its control on hiring. The commission conducts background checks on prospective employees in the port and has the power to decide how many workers can be hired and when.

In recent years, the commission has used that power to demand that the unions add diversity to their ranks, which traditionally have been dominated by white men. In 2013, the commission said it would allow for more hiring as long as the union certified that each new worker had been chosen in a fair and nondiscriminatory way.

The union and the shipping association responded with a lawsuit that argued that the commission was charged with fighting corruption not racial or sexual discrimination. After a federal court dismissed the suit, the union and the association appealed.

In 2016, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. In its decision, the court asked, “Can it seriously be argued that racial discrimination in hiring (or anywhere, for that matter), is not a corrupt practice?”

Meanwhile, the commission’s adversaries pressed lawmakers in Trenton for help. Raymond J. Lesniak, a powerful Democratic state senator from Elizabeth who left the Legislature to run for governor last year, took up their cause. In 2010, Lesniak sponsored a bill that called for turning the commission’s powers over to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, another bistate agency created by an act of Congress. Lesniak argued that the industry had changed dramatically since the days of “On the Waterfront” and the commission was no longer needed.

Five years later, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Lesniak that called for the dissolution of the commission. But Christie vetoed that bill because he said that it would be unconstitutional for New Jersey to act alone to break the compact with New York.

Christie has been no ally of Lesniak. But this week, in one of his final acts as governor, he signed a bill that was essentially the same one he vetoed in 2015, without explaining why he had changed his mind.

A lawyer for the commission, Michael A. Cardozo, of the Proskauer law firm, said on Monday, “I don’t understand how former Gov. Christie, a former United States attorney, who in 2015 vetoed virtually the identical law because he said it was unconstitutional, could have signed the law we have challenged.”

There was one notable difference: Lesniak said he agreed to remove his name from the bill, at the insistence of Christie. “My ego’s not important here,” Lesniak said. “What’s important here is freeing our businesses in what I believe will be a very productive manner.”

Lesniak agreed with Nardi that the commission’s strict regulation of hiring in the port had been detrimental to the growth of the industry locally and had driven some business to other East Coast ports that have no comparable watchdog agency.

“There is no showing that there’s any more organized crime activity than there is in any other business, so why shouldn’t they be treated like any other business?” Lesniak said.

The commission’s complaint argues that New York lawmakers would have to pass a bill identical to the one Christie signed to end the compact between the states. No similar legislation is pending in Albany. A spokesman for the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, said his staff was reviewing the legislation.