Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka on Monday called for a federal investigation into what he called “severe racial, gender and ethnic inequality” in hiring of longshoremen at New Jersey’s marine terminals, and asked the U.S. Attorney General to determine whether any civil rights laws had been violated.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, Mr. Baraka highlighted membership rolls at two New Jersey locals of the International Longshoremens Association, the main port labor union, showing that both were more than 85% white even though the cities of Newark and Elizabeth, where the terminals are located, have a combined black and Latino population of 77%.
“Clearly those hired to work at the Port are not representative of the diversity of the surrounding community,” wrote Mr. Baraka, who took office in 2014.
Officials at the ILA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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The mayor’s letter is the latest development in a continuing dispute at the Port of New York and New Jersey, the largest seaport on the East Coast and third-largest in the U.S., over hiring practices that some watchdogs argue are plagued by corruption and nepotism.
Roughly 3,500 longshoremen work at the region’s waterfronts as clerks, crane operators, inspectors, mechanics and other positions. Employment has fallen from about 35,000 dockworkers in the middle of the last century, when the introduction of shipping containers reduced the need for large crews to handle cargo. The union has fought efforts to introduce automated technologies that would reduce employment.
Currently, the ILA and the New York Shipping Association, which represents terminal operators, refer workers to the longshoremen’s employment register, but those workers must be certified before they can go to work.
That certification is done by the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a body set up in the 1950s to combat organized crime in waterfront labor unions. The commission in recent years also has focused on drug-testing and on getting the terminals to hire a more diverse workforce.
Labor tensions have flared over the diversity issue. In 2013, the NYSA and the ILA sued the commission in federal court in New Jersey, arguing the organization had “gone off the rails” by exceeding its original mandate and changing the requirements for adding longshoremen to the port’s employment register.
The commission argues that policing federal fair hiring practices, including discrimination, falls under its purview to fight “corruption” in hiring.
The hiring dispute was behind a one-day walkout by hundreds of longshoremen in January that effectively shut down the port cargo terminals before the NYSA got a court injunction compelling the workers to return to work.
Mr. Baraka met with representatives of the commission, the union and the shipping association last May, shortly after being elected mayor, and asked the NYSA to deliver in three weeks a list of Newark residents who could be hired as dockworkers, according to a person who attended the meeting. Mr. Baraka’s press office declined to make him available for an interview Monday, saying he was busy preparing for a speech.
‘We welcome anybody’s looking into our hiring practices. We have nothing to hide.’
John Nardi, president of the NYSA, described his group’s relationship with the Newark mayor as “cooperative and positive,” and said that Monday’s call for an investigation came out of the blue. He said that by the time the group met with the mayor last year, more than 60 longshoremen who live in Newark had been hired in the latest round of hiring, which started about two years ago.
Since March 2014, 832 longshoremen have been certified and added to the register, and about 800 have been put to work, according to NYSA statistics. Of those, 41.4% were white, 20.8% were Hispanic, 34.6% were black and the remainder belonged to other ethnic groups. Females made up 8.4% of the new hires, NYSA said.
“Apparently, he’s got his own stable of people he wants hired,” Mr. Nardi said. “We welcome anybody’s looking into our hiring practices. We have nothing to hide. If they want an investigation, we’re happy to show them our statistics.”
Write to Robbie Whelan at [email protected]