With all the recent talk about security vulnerabilities at the nation's ports, one subject goes virtually unmentioned. The men who actually control many of the nation's docks, especially on the Eastern seaboard, are in the hip pocket of the Mafia and have been for decades.
Regardless of whether or not a Dubai-owned company manages operations at these ports -- currently the source of much hand-wringing in Washington -- many of those with the most direct access to the billions of tons of cargo that move through those ports owe their jobs to the mob.
How can that be? It all has to do with the peculiar institution of the union hiring hall. No matter who owns or operates the ports, the union, not the employer, actually assigns workers to jobs. You can't work unless you carry a union card. And on East Coast and Gulf ports, the union card belongs to the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA), one of the most mobbed-up unions in the country.
In July 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) against the ILA, which targets the entire 31-member ILA executive council, including the president, secretary-treasurer, executive vice president, general vice president and more than two dozen others.
In a press release accompanying the suit, the Justice Department notes, "For decades the waterfront has been the setting for corruption and violence stemming from organized crime's influence over labor unions operating there, including the ILA and its affiliated locals, as well as port-related businesses. Since the late 1950s, two organized crime families -- the Gambino family and the Genovese family -- have shared control of various ports, with the Gambino family primarily exercising its influence at commercial shipping terminals in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and the Genovese family primarily controlling those in Manhattan, New Jersey and the Port of Miami."
The Justice Department has already won convictions against more than a dozen high-level Gambino and Genovese mobsters who controlled docks on the East Coast and is also seeking convictions of several ILA officials. The government has charged these men with extorting money from waterfront businesses and terminal operators and extorting thousands of dollars from individuals seeking employment on the docks, among other crimes.
And this recent spate of ILA indictments is only the most recent example in the long history of organized crime control over the union. New York University law professor James B. Jacobs describes that history in his new book, "Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement." "Cosa Nostra became the primary power on the New York harbor waterfront in 1937, when Anthony Anastasio . . . took control of the six New York harbor locals," says Jacobs, and it has remained so ever since. In the 1970s, the federal government won convictions of more than 100 mobsters, including 20 ILA officials, among them ILA Vice President Anthony Scotto.
Yet despite this sordid history, few lawmakers who profess concern about port security seem in the slightest bit worried that the ILA's role on the docks may constitute a huge security risk. The ILA contributes millions of dollars each election cycle. In the 2004 election cycle, the ILA's political action committee (PAC) had over $7 million cash on hand to distribute to candidates.
Among the top recipients of ILA PAC money in the last few elections were Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, Robert Menendez, D-NJ, Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, all of whom represent states with important ports. Some of these same senators are among the chief critics of the Dubai port deal, but they are noticeably silent when it comes to mob influence in the union that actually controls who works on these ports.
Union bosses who would rob their members of pensions and health benefits, extort money to secure jobs on the docks, and use the docks to run gambling, loan sharking and other illegal enterprises could just as easily facilitate terrorists hoping to slip agents or weapons into the country, perhaps unwittingly, for the right price. But few in Washington seem to have considered the risk. The Dubai deal is not the only port issue that deserves more congressional scrutiny; ILA corruption surely deserves a close look as well.