Lawmakers, agency reps spar over bill to dissolve Waterfront Commission

TRENTON – Lawmakers, legal counsellors and business owners traded fiery words at a Senate Economic Growth Committee hearing today as they debated — and ultimately released — a bill that would dissolve The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a bi-state regulatory agency created in 1953 to combat criminal activity at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

The Commission — the primary purpose of which is to license businesses and vet potential employees at shipping companies at the port to ensure hiring practices are in accordance with state and federal law — has become the subject of criticism among lawmakers and labor leaders who see its involvement in the industry as crippling to the state’s economic growth. The port’s leading labor organizations have held protests over the that involvement.

More recently, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) union joined with the region’s main employer group, the New York Shipping Association (NYSA), in suing the agency over those hires, mostly vacant longshoremen positions companies aren’t able to fill and which they insist are hurting business.

Frustration over the commission was on high exhibit again today, with legislators like state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-20) and shipping labor leaders like John Nardy, president of the NYSA, slamming the commission for playing an overly bureaucracy — and, they argue, unnecessary — role in the industry’s affairs.    

“Just as the drug war has proven ineffective in dealing with the problem of substance abuse, likewise the creeping jurisdiction of an agency that needs to justified its own existence is causing consequences that are really harmful to employment and economic growth in New Jersey,” said Lesniak, the committee’s chairman.

Lesniak is the primary sponsor of the legislation released today, part of which would direct Gov. Chris Christie to withdraw from the original compact establishing the commission, leaving New York to fare on its own. He and others argued that that relationship has never been fair anyway, with New Jersey holding 85 percent of the port’s market share to New York’s 15 percent, but with the balance of power often tending heavily towards the latter state. 

With the Commission out of the picture, its responsibilities and operations at New Jersey ports would go to the State Police here, according to the legislation.

“Most of the work is being done in New Jersey but [New York] is running the show,” Lesniak told PolitickerNJ after the hearing. “Why would they want to give that up?”

But the issue of withdrawing from the bi-state compact is a tricky one, and it’s unclear whether the bill, if passed, will hold enough legal weight to make any real impact. Representatives from the Waterfront Commission present at the hearing argued that the state lacks the constitutional authority to unilaterally break its contract with New York, citing recent Supreme Court cases that found both states must agree to modification before the contract can be altered. 

“In short, this is bi-state compact, it was approved by Congress, it’s an interstate contract and interstate contracts are formal agreements between states, subject to the principles of contract laws,” said Phoebe Sorial, general counsel for the Waterfront Commission, who added that New Jersey’s plea for withdrawal likely wouldn’t hold up in court.

There’s also the Commission’s original mandate — fighting the culture of organized crime, labor racketeering  and extortion that has plagued New Jersey and New York’s ports since the turn of the century, which Sorial and Walter Arsenault, executive director of the commission, said is still an ongoing problem at many terminals.

Arsenault cited a list of terminal heads and hiring agents at the port who have been convicted of crimes — one who was running a drug operation to feed his own addiction, he said.

“These are the problems we have at the port. We have twelve longshoremen and hiring agents, the most important people in the system because they decide who works, who are associated with organized crime,” Arsenault said. “We have people from the ILA who are associated with organized crime, This court because of its history has got a problem, and that problem has not gone away.”

Sorial added that many companies have refused to meet diversity requirements under the contract. One provision requires that 51 percent of new hires at the port be military veterans, with 26 percent referred by the ILA and 24 percent by the NYSA. She said there are currently 149 prequalified workers ready to go to work that have yet to be sponsored or hired by the NYSA, 52 of which are military vets.

Still, lawmakers — including state Sen. Joe Kryllios (R-13), Jim Whelan (D-2), Steve Oroho (R-24), and Peter Barnes (D-18) — agreed that that hiring process would be more effectively handled by the companies themselves.

“Unless this course is reversed, workers will suffer, businesses will suffer, and New Jersey will continue to suffer under the Waterfront Commission,” said Lesniak.

The committee released the bill (S-2277) with an amendment (S-2417) unanimously.

Lawmakers, agency reps spar over bill to dissolve Waterfront Commission