On the Waterfront

By Phil Primack | Boston Magazine |

The nondescript cement-block union hall on Summer Street, not far from the new convention center's starship bow, is easy to miss. And such anonymity is just fine with the three small locals of the International Longshoremen's Association for which the one-story, bunkerlike building at the end of a barren, fenced-in parking lot is home. If the convention center is designed for Boston's future, these unions, whose members load and unload cargo at the nearby Conley Container Terminal and cruise ships at Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, seem to belong to its past.

Long stuck with a national image of nepotism and corruption, Boston's longshoremen have most recently faced a grand jury investigation into allegations they gave union cards to members' offspring as young as two and a half. This purportedly was meant to start the clock ticking on the kids' seniority, ensuring them a higher rate of pay when they grow up and—like generations of their families before them—go to work on the docks. Union officials won't say anything about this, or about much of anything else. They evoke a dockworker named Moose in the 1954 film On the Waterfront. “One thing I learned all my life on the waterfront,” Moose says. “Don't ask no questions, don't answer no questions.”

Most Bostonians know little about longshoremen beyond what they may remember from that Marlon Brando classic. And though their shoes, their clothes, their electronics, their toys, and their beer may arrive through South Boston's 100-acre Paul W. Conley Container Terminal—named for a longshoreman—what's left of the city's working port remains out of mind and largely out of sight. Except, perhaps, when drivers crossing the Reserve Channel notice a three-football-field-long ship tied up at the dock, such as the China Ocean Shipping Company's Zhen He, which has just arrived from Hong Kong after nearly a month at sea.

A total of four Asian lines now run weekly inbound and outbound direct service between Boston and the Far East. Also using Conley is the Mediterranean Shipping Company, which sends two ships to and from northern Europe and the Mediterranean every week. Barges shuttle containers between Boston and ports in New York and Halifax. Conley can go days on end with little activity, but its giant machinery kicks into high gear when the ships come in.

Today three crews of longshoremen—gangs, in maritime parlance—have filled the parking lot outside the union hall with their SUVs and pickups while they tend to loading and offloading containers. Cranes 135 feet high roll like extras from a Star Wars battle scene, effortlessly hoisting 40-foot-long containers that just hours ago were steaming across the Atlantic. The containers are loaded at a pace of one every two and a half minutes onto trucks that soon depart for destinations across the country. Even as these imports move out, exports arrive in an armada of 18-wheelers hauling more containers that are soon stacked eight high and 13 across beneath and atop the solid gray deck of the Zhen He, which will be off at the next high tide for Qingdao, China.

China has made Conley much more of a player ever since Massport, which operates it, managed to secure direct shipping service to and from that country four years ago this month. At that time Massachusetts was importing about three containers for every one it exported. Since direct service to China began, that trade gap has been cut nearly in half. “Your goal is to take a full load of imports [off a ship] and load a full load of exports,” says the Massport maritime department's port director, Michael Leone, dodging oncoming heavy equipment as he provides a driving tour of the terminal. Conley's 889,893 tons of imports last year were up 3.2 percent over the year before. But its 553,457 tons of exports represented a year-to-year increase of nearly 17 percent. (In a Hub variation on the Newcastle theme, even fish is now being brought to Boston. “We get tons of fish from China,” says Leone. “We import more fish from this facility than we export.” Imported fish is trucked to Gloucester, New Bedford, or elsewhere for processing, returned to Boston, then loaded back onto outbound ships. “We're trying to create overseas herring and mackerel markets, especially in Asia,” Leone says.)

Massport has invested $75 million in improvements to Conley since the mid-1990s to keep the facility competitive, with the latest scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. It must invest, because commercial shippers have a lot of places they could dock besides here. They can transport containers by truck or rail, or they can use the much larger cargo ports of New York, Virginia, Nova Scotia, and elsewhere on the East Coast.

America's oldest working port, and once its busiest, the Port of Boston has been on a long, sad slide since World War I. It's now ranked a distant 22nd among the nation's 81 ports in total tonnage. Thanks in part to its relatively small size and lack of direct rail access, Conley will never rise to the top. Still, says Massport executive director Craig Coy, “we can be a very focused, solid regional port for the New England trade community.”

If he can keep peace with the unions.

Talk to people in the business about the Port of Boston and they're likely to tell you about problems with labor, especially the longshoremen. High costs and low productivity almost sank the port altogether. By the late 1990s only two container vessels came to call each week. The cost of unloading shipments in Boston was twice as much as in the ports of Baltimore, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina, the shipping company CSX complained. Boston's longshoremen were among the highest-paid dockworkers in the world. Shippers said they would stop coming to Boston entirely if the price didn't come down. Some made good on the threat.

That's when Massport proposed cutting costs by consolidating its container operations in South Boston and devoting the Moran Terminal in Chelsea exclusively to cars—over the objections of the longshoremen. There were other clashes. The unions staged a work slowdown to protest the elimination of two jobs left vacant by retirements. They only reluctantly agreed to give up a provision that paid them overtime for the idle period between 6 p.m., their normal quitting time, and 10 p.m., when they were required to resume unloading ships. In an uneasy truce, they narrowly agreed to cut their ranks by 30 percent through attrition.

Today about 30 longshoremen and about as many clerks work permanently at Conley. When ships are nearing port, gangs of about 18 are assigned, depending on the size and type of vessel. When a ship like the Zhen He comes in, as many as three of the huge cranes may be needed. Shippers paid $23.6 million at Conley last year for stevedoring, or loading and unloading. That money is split among a relatively small number of people—234, to be exact, including other dockside union members—each of whom works 400 hours or more a year, and of whom 170 are longshoremen, according to the Boston Shipping Association.

You don't have to be on the docks to do well down on the waterfront. Members of the three main locals paid $286,167, or nearly $1,000 per member, toward salaries and allowances for union officers in 2004, the last year for which the figures are available, according to documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Labor. International Longshoremen's Association Local 799 business manager James Langan took home $92,456 in salary and $2,355 in allowances, and Local 805 business agent Richard Flaherty made $91,446. Asked who or what determines such pay levels, Flaherty refers the question to union attorney Edward McNelley, who says he can't discuss it because of the ongoing children-on-the-payroll investigation. What explains such a seemingly hefty payroll for such small locals, whose combined membership is 322? No comment, repeats McNelley.

Privately, though, union officials chafe at any suggestion that they are “pork choppers,” the old labor term for guys who make big bucks sitting around the office. They resent being condemned as slackers or worse by people they think understand little and care less about the world of the longshoremen. “We may be making good money, but it took 100 years to get to this point,” says one, who, like so many others in the port, is the latest of several generations of his family to work the docks. “Our parents got to be longshoremen because no one else would do it. We don't look at it as an entitlement.” He has more to say about it, “but we got to do what our lawyer tells us.”

James McNamara, spokesman for the union's national office, also sticks to the Moose code. “The official comment is no comment,” he says. “Period.”

Many of the men who work at Conley aren't actually full-time union members. They're scallywags, nonmembers given union sanction to work when not enough card-carrying longshoremen are available to handle the workload.

As far as the shipping industry is concerned, however, part-time or permanent isn't the issue when it comes to deciding whether to use Conley or sail somewhere else. Nor are wages. It's how well the job gets done. Longshoremen work under a master contract that is equalized across all ports, says maritime industry expert John Martin, who authored a report about Conley's economic impact. “Every carrier complains about costs. But it's not the hourly costs—it's work rules, it's productivity, that becomes critical.” A port's ability to turn around ships quickly is what gets shippers' attention. A delay of even hours leaving Boston can cause a ship to miss the narrow window it's been assigned to pass through the Panama Canal, which costs the shipping companies big money, which makes them wary of returning here.

Meeting such tight schedules means loading and unloading containers quickly. Massport moves an average of 25 containers an hour. Industry sources say that number needs to be closer to 30. “I'd like to get to there, too,” says Coy.

Getting there depends on machinery and other capital improvements—but also on the longshoremen. In recent contract negotiations, the longshoremen's union agreed to lower wages for newer members (new members start at a base wage of $16 an hour while more-senior members earn upward of $28 per hour, according to sources, helping to explain why longshoremen allegedly tried to get their toddlers onto the seniority list). And in talks with the Boston Shipping Association, local longshoremen agreed to work-rules changes making it more likely a ship will be served no matter how the tide or other factors affect its schedule.

“Up and down the East Coast, Boston has always had the reputation of having terrible labor relationships,” says the shipping association's executive director, Richard Meyer. “But this isn't the same place it was 20 years ago. In the last couple of rounds of bargaining, the longshoremen have cooperated at looking at the issues. We have come a long way.”

Far enough, though? “We are pulling on every string and lever we can” to make container operations more efficient, Coy says. “To have the Port of Boston be successful—which I assume is the longshoremen's association's goal as well—will take management doing its part in terms of investments and the longshoremen doing their part to provide good service. If either of those parts doesn't work, this port will shrivel up.”

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