Allegations of a plot cooked up by at least one member of the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and an executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (exactly how many people were involved is unclear) to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge has tarnished the bi-state agency and demoralized its staff.
“It’s embarrassing,” one of the port authority’s employees said, even a month before the worst of the scandal was uncovered.
The negative publicity couldn’t come at a worse time for the port, which has its hands full with a slew of challenges, including:
- Crippling congestion that got so bad last summer, some cargo was diverted to other ports. Long wait times for truckers to get in and out of terminals plagued the terminals in New Jersey last month.
- Raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge 64 feet so larger ships can pass beneath it to call the port’s main container terminals. Work is just getting underway to raise the roadway, while at the same time keeping the bridge open. It’s an ingenious, complicated plan that some have compared to changing tires while driving down a highway at 60 mph.
- Efforts to roll back a port authority fee on cargo to help pay for roadway construction and other port improvements. This fee is being challenged before an administrative law judge at the Federal Maritime Commission, and the New Jersey legislature passed a bill that would prevent the agency from collecting it. To come into effect, Gov. Christie would have to sign it and similar legislation would have to be passed in New York.
- Hiring hundreds of longshoremen to replace those who retired between 2007 and 2012 and another 250 who were offered incentives to retire as part of a new contract that was negotiated with the International Longshoremen’s Association last spring.
- Implementing that ILA contract, which features new productivity standards, a relief-gang system aimed at reducing overtime costs, and a recruitment and hiring program.
“The focal point of the contract negotiations was getting the NY/NJ port prepared to handle increased cargo volumes, so that ocean carriers would be assured that stevedore companies in the NY/NJ port would be able to offer efficient and cost-effective stevedoring services and thus the carriers would continue to utilize the NY/NJ port as the preeminent port on the East Coast.”
That statement comes from a complaint filed by the ILA and the two groups that it negotiates local contracts with—the New York Shipping Association (NYSA), which bargains with the locals representing longshoremen, clerks and checkers, and the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors, which bargains with maintenance and repair workers.
Both the ILA and their employers have gone to federal court seeking an injunction to prevent the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which they complain wants to unlawfully change hiring requirements for maintenance and repair workers and impose new hiring procedures for longshoremen, clerks and checkers.
(A request for a preliminary injunction against the Waterfront Commission was turned down in December; the commission is seeking to have the complaint dismissed.)
The commission is essentially a specialized crime-fighting organization with wide latitude to investigate the background of dockworkers both before and after they are hired. Created in 1953 to stomp out the kind of corruption that was the backdrop for the film On the Waterfront, the commission also has the ability to regulate the labor supply in the port.
At the ILA’s last convention, attorney George Daggett, brother of ILA President Harold Daggett, said the union’s members in New York harbor live in a “police state” with an agency that’s “perpetuating the stigma of organized crime.”
The NYSA and ILA say there’s an average daily shortage of 382 employees and have requested to add 682 employees to the port’s deep-sea longshoremen register, which the Waterfront Commission can open.
The court battle has led to a virtual standstill in hiring, even though a shortage of personnel is said to be one of the reasons, along with computer glitches and new trucking regulations, that caused what was described as a “perfect storm” in the port last summer. It got so bad that at one point container carrier Hapag-Lloyd suggested its shippers consider moving cargo through alternative ports.
“I had customers who said [Super Storm] Sandy was nothing because the summer of 2013 was probably more challenging from our perspective than any storm had been,” said Richard Larrabee, director of the port authority’s Port Commerce Department,
“I spent a good deal of my day speaking with BCOs (beneficial cargo owners) and people like Jonathan Gold (the vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation). When I tried to explain to them what I thought were at least earnest efforts to make improvements, they really didn’t want to hear that we were working harder and that we thought things were getting better, they wanted to see quantitative measurements,” Larrabee said at a Journal of Commerce seminar on port productivity.
If there was anything good that came out of the chaos last summer, he said, it was recognition that “we had a lot of problems and they needed to be addressed. And I think the other reality for most of us was they were problems that we simply couldn’t solve by ourselves.”
The agency created a Port Performance Task Force in December that includes Larrabee and 20 other leaders from around the port, including executives from terminals, ocean carriers, non-vessel-operating common carriers, chassis lessors, railroads, truckers, shippers, and the ILA.
Steve Schulein, director at National Retail Transportation, a member of the task force, said he’s been impressed by the determination of the task force’s members.
“We all know this thing has to be escalated. We can’t drag our feet and have 1,000 meetings and go nowhere,” he said. Working groups were being set up to dig into specifics.
Schulein sees the port authority’s role as essential—a neutral party that can bring everyone together.