Deck Stacked Against the Docks

Bennett Baumer Oct 6, 2004

Knowing that “accidents” occur on the docks, rank-and-file longshoreman Diego Martinez took the stand Sept. 22 to testify about election fraud at Newark Local 1235 of the International Longshoremen Association (ILA). Dozens of longshoremen from Louisiana to New Jersey had filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against the master contract that covers the entire east coast, ratified in a disputed unionwide vote on June 8. Federal Judge Victor Marrero denied the rank-and-file members’ request and the contract went into effect Oct. 1.

In his decision, Judge Marrero said that union members had not established that voter coercion and the voiding of votes based on irregularities merited an injunction of the contract. The judge was also swayed by United States Maritime Association executives who testified that an injunction would be bad for the shipping business.

The master contract creates a multi-tiered wage system that gives management the power to hire new, lower-wage workers in place of longshoremen with seniority. Dock workers earn benefits based on hours worked per year, not years on the job. Under the disputed contract, workers need to log 1000 hours to qualify for even 50 percent health coverage, 300 more than before.

Martinez, a Spanish immigrant, testified that he went to vote against the master contract, which he believes lacks many economic benefits. Union members were promised a secret vote, but when Martinez arrived, union trustee Jose Caseis was watching. Local President Al Cernadas, who has been fingered as a Genovese family mob associate, was also present.

“After he saw that I voted no, he put the paper to the side and said you don’t understand, you have to vote yes,” testified Martinez.

Lawyers for the opposing longshoremen said in court that workers could face retaliation for testifying. As the Indypendent reported in its last issue, high-ranking longshore union officials were indicted this past summer for mafia ties.

Rank-and-file longshoremen face an uphill battle against corrupt labor leaders and a wealthy shipping industry. The ILA and maritime industry were co-defendants in the hearing, and their lawyers argued together against union members.

Though the longshoremen lost in court, their fight to democratize the union lives another “I think the employers and the ILA know this wasn’t a flash in the pan,” said New Jersey Tony Perlstein.

Through their efforts to gain an injunction and to vote down what many have called a “sell-out” contract, workers in the ports are coming together. Dock workers will need to to defeat a triangle of power in the maritime industry – corrupt labor leaders, the mafia and stevedore bosses.

Much still separates the East coast longshoremen and their West coast counterparts, who split from the ILA in the 1930’s because the East coast union opposed the era’s growing worker militancy. However, East coast longshore workers have experienced recent victories. Local 1422’s “Charleston 5” were arrested for protesting non-union cargo in January 2000. The labor movement rallied around the five after they were charged with rioting and conspiracy by an anti-union and racially-motivated state Attorney General. Charges were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence. “Many ideas and progressive thinking came out of the victory of the Charleston 5. When we apply the lessons of that victory on the ILA, we’re seen as troublemakers,” said Local 1422 member Leonard Riley.

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