Rumble On the Docks: Contract Pits Pinstriped Pinheads Against Roughneck Roustabouts

Illustration: Tim Lane

Last week, as the Chicago teachers’ strike was puttering out of the news cycle and the National Football League’s lockout of its referees was thundering in, a federal labor mediator announced to little fanfare that the International Longshoremen’s Association and U.S. Maritime Alliance had agreed, “for the good of the country,” to extend the master contract governing dock work from Maine to Texas for 90 days.

The media barely covered the news, but the implications were enormous. If the two sides had failed to reach a deal before the existing contract expired on Sept. 30, the resulting chaos would have touched not only the 20,000-some longshoremen who punch a clock on the East Coast, but thousands of truckers and railroad men, mechanics and warehouse workers, and the many millions of Americans who buy and sell automobiles, home electronics, designer jeans, toothpaste and anything else that’s manufactured on foreign shores. Pretty much everyone.

Three months from now, it could still happen.

The last time the U.S. had a major work stoppage on the docks, when the West Coast longshoremen’s union was locked out amid stalled contract negotiations in 2002, the economic costs were said to reach $2 billion a day. And then there are the political implications. Had the ILA followed through on its strike threat, President Barack Obama would have faced an interesting decision not five weeks from Election Day: allow the work stoppage to drag on an already sluggish economy, or invoke Taft-Hartley to send the longshoremen back to work, provoking the ire of a loyal and powerful constituency.

There are reasons for the lack of attention. In an era when virtually every consumer good is available at the click of a mouse, it’s easy to take for granted the massive enterprise required to move a pair of Nikes from a factory in Vietnam to a stockroom on the Upper West Side. Perhaps as important in explaining the quiet surrounding the issue is that neither side in the negotiations is known to cherish attention. One is a labor union with a history of mob ties dating back to the days when stevedores gaffed stray cargo with steel hooks. The other is a group of mostly faceless institutional investors who have been snapping up terminal operators for the last five or so years.

There’s a famous story about ILA President Harold Daggett. It was the early 1980s, and as the newly elected secretary-treasurer of Local 1804-1, Mr. Daggett had taken it into his head to move the local’s offices closer to the New Jersey waterfront, where his membership worked. The idea went over well with the local president, and with the bank officer who approved a loan for a union hall behind a tangled stretch of rail yard in North Bergen. But not everyone was onboard.

Mr. Daggett was still working out of the old local offices at 403 Greenwich Street when a messenger ferried the young union man to a grocery store in East Harlem. Beyond a pair of steel doors in a windowless storeroom, a Genovese family hitman was waiting, a canvas athletic bag thrown open on the floor.

“You motherfucker,” said the mob tough who awaited him in a dimly lit back room. “Who the fuck are you to take this local away from me?”

At least, that’s the story Mr. Daggett told in federal court in 2005, where he faced charges of conspiracy and extortion.

Daggett told the court: “I said, ‘I’m not taking anything, I’m going closer to the membership,’ and he pulled out a gun and shoved it in my head. I said, ‘Please, don’t do this to me,’ and he cocked back the trigger and he said, ‘I will blow your brains all over the fuckin’ room. I’m going to kill you.’”

Rumble On the Docks: Contract Pits Pinstriped Pinheads Against Roughneck Roustabouts