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October 18th, 2007

ON THE WATERFRONT

by D. Clark MacPherson

Marlon Brando was a young actor when he sauntered onto the silver screen in Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie about poverty, homelessness and mob violence. Terry Malloy, Brando’s character, was actually modeled after the real-life efforts of Anthony deVincenzo, who testified in front of theWaterfront Commission about violence, racketeering and extortion on the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. While it was a difficult life for union members on the waterfront in those days (some of whom were men who were parolees who had no other options for work), it was also a different world. Unions fought corporate giants whose concern for workers’ rights and their ability to survive were often nonexistent. Unions may have been corrupted but they did fill a real need when they functioned to protect members. The fact that Longshoremen were perceived as thugs or mobsters had a basis in fact – but few crooked corporate CEO’s were deservedly indicted in those days for corruption.

Today, remnants of the International Longshoremen’s Association still work the piers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Far from being semi-retired mobsters whose President was machine-gunned down in the old days, they are now a group of embattled workers who are trying to keep their jobs and preserve a tradition on the Manhattan waterfront. While the City tries to export both the jobs and the function of dock workers from Manhattan to New Jersey and Brooklyn, the union is trying to educate New Yorkers about what they are in danger of losing.

The EDC (Economic Development Corporation) has been busy transforming many of the piers into trade show locations– providing venues for many business ventures–but preventing foreign passengers from landing in Manhattan and depriving many local businesses from much-needed tourist dollars. Europeans now often wind up walking the streets of Red Hook or Bayonne when they get off their ships.

Picture this. You’re watching a news report of crowds who are awaiting a billion dollar ocean liner about to arrive in Manhattan, but the reality is that the Mayor has had to divert his limo to Brooklyn–Red Hook no less–to receive his visiting dignitaries. Mary Pickford would have fired Zukor for less. Nice first impression.

Of course, most ships now go to New Jersey, where the EDC is also trying to steer the ILA. And millions have been spent in Red Hook, but City Hall won’t even repair the peeling paint on Pier 92 here in Manhattan. Billy Cox, secretary of the ILA, thinks that the City is pushing them out so that space can be taken over for more trade shows – as has already happened on adjoining piers.

What is even more disturbing about this little City Hall gambit is the fact that former EDC Vice President Kate Ascher is now a Trade organization executive. Yet, the ILU, at Pier 92–starved of funding to maintain the pier–is clearly being “urged” to leave town. While the seamy side of business and politics may be at work, the tradition, and history of the waterfront continues to suffer.

In a small office on Pier 92, Billy Cox spoke about the difficulty members have in qualifying for benefits due to the abbreviated hours available to them. He spoke about the fact that adjoining piers, slated for conversion to trade show use, have been expanded and renovated. Meanwhile Pier 92, where passengers still arrive from other countries –step onto a deteriorating pier. Or, they are simply rerouted to New Jersey. Travel brochures picture the shores of Manhattan but in reality, tourists wind up in New Jersey when they disembark from their ships. Cox estimates that local businesses lose about $500,000 a visit when a ship is directed away from Manhattan.Walking tours of Red Hook or Bayonne don’t seem to draw as well either.

The drastic result of this loss of dockworkers and union labor in New York City is about more than just the waterfront. It is about the pride of the International Longshoremen, the history of our waterfront and the tradition of shipping and tourism in Manhattan.

And it is also about control at a City Hall that is engaged in the dubious pursuit of converting Manhattan’s piers into trade show destinations, rather than a destination for world travelers who want to see our magnificent city–the capital of capitalism, the capital of the free world.

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