Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

Waterfront labor racketeering belayed for now

Is waterfront crime as inevitable as the tides on which shipping rides in and out of the world's ports? Despite a very successful recent Federal Bureau of Investigation crackdown on labor racketeering in United States East Coast ports, crime will inevitably make a comeback on the waterfront, say sources well-acquainted with the scene, unless anti-racketeering laws are strengthened and pressure kept on by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.

The abuse of power by dishonest leaders of martime unions is a longstanding problem. It was first brought graphically to American public attention in 1954 by Stanley Kramer's powerful film, "On the Waterfront," which helped establish Marlon Brando's stardom.

About these ads

Past waterfront investigations have resulted in the conviction and removal of corrupt leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and other unions connected with the shipping industry. But criminal activity has seemed as self-renewing as the tide.

The latest FBI crackdown, called Operation Unirac (for union racketeering) was the largest ever, stretching its net from Boston to Houston. It lasted four years, beginning in 1975.

Fifty-six of 116 persons indicted as the result of Operation Unirac were members of or associated with the ILA and some 43 were associated with management of shipping or other companies, according to a US Department of Justice spokesman. The indictments included 35 in New York; 32 in Miami; 20 in Wilmington, N.C.; 11 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and others in Boston; Mobile, Ala.; Tampa, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; New Orleans; Jackson, Miss.; Charleston, S.C.; and Houston.

Some 68 persons, including many key ILA officials, have been convicted and another 45 are awaiting trial. There have been only three acquittals to date.

The tough question now is: Will the old system of payoffs and threats be allowed to grow again like a stubborn weed?

The answer, based on Monitor interviews with shippers, federal prosecutors, and US Senate investigators, is that recurrence is likely without a strong follow-up to Unirac. And, so far, there are few signs of a follow-up.

Corruption on the docks has been slowed, but it will likely resume, a veteran Miami shipper here told the Monitor. But, he says, "It will take the new guys [ in the ILA] a while to learn the ropes."

About these ads

Another longtime shipper here said he is "always hoping" that there might be a way to change the kind of illegal activities that led to the waterfront indictments. But shipping is a very competitive business, and "good labor relations" have to be maintained, he said.

John F. Evans, the Justice department's former chief prosecutor for Unirac cases in the Southeast, where the bulk of the indictments were issued, is not convinced federal follow-up efforts on the docks will be adquate.

"The situation could be created again. Payoffs could start up again, and everything else," he said in Miami, where he recently entered private practice as an attorney.

To prevent a full-scale resumption of waterfront corruption, Mr. Evans recommends:

1. Stronger federal laws against payoffs. a Senate subcommittee is conducting a preliminary investigation that could lead to recommendations for such laws.

2. A reversal in the sudden decline (following the major indictments) in federal manpower assigned to combat waterfront corruption.

3. Follow-up on the many unprosecuted cases of apparent dockside corruption unearthed during the FBI crackdown.

4. An aggressive public-relations program by the FBI to convince "sincere" shippers and other waterfront businessmen that the Justice Department will help them combat demands for payoffs.

Atlee Wampler, head of the Justice Department's strike force in Miami, said in an interview he is determined that widespread waterfront union corruption "isn't going to happen again." But with the FBI now involved in so many investigations, it is more a question of "which fire is consuming your pants leg at the time," he said.

So far no one has been appointed to replace Mr. Evans and two other Unirac prosecutors here who have left. But Mr. Wampler says at least two replacements are expected in April.

He adds, however, that only "some" of the suggestions for follow-up left behind by the prosecutors will be carried out.

Unirac was a massive effort involving hundreds of agents. The FBI focused on both those soliciting payoffs (chiefly ILA officials) and those making payoffs (shipping and other companies). The dual approach, according to federal prosecutors, is in line with the FBI's recent emphasis on uncovering so-called white-collar crime.

The bureau's message to waterfront businessmen is: It is no longer risk-free to make payoffs. Shippers who do so and subsequently expect to get off the hook by turning state's evidence may be disappointed. But such an approach requires inside information -- something the FBI has not had an easy time getting.

A key element in the FBI's plans to keep the docks under surveillance, Mr. Wampler says, will be "a healthy informant program." But Mr. Evans points out that, during four years of federal investigation, no ILA members and only one shipper stepped forward to be an informant. Another former Unirac prosecutor concurs with the Evans opinion that informants are not likely to appear.

Joey Teitelbaum, the only shipper who agreed to act as an informant for Unirac, is being guarded around the clock by US marshals. The betting down on the docks, according to another shipper here who did not publicly testify about payoffs, was that Mr. Teitelbaum would have been killed by now.

"Nobody should have to pay for the right to work," Mr. Teitelbaum said in an interview here. He says that feeling and his "belief in the Almighty" gave him the courage to begin offering the FBI inside information on the payoffs he was then making to ILA officials who had threatened his family. After four years of undercover cooperation with the FBI, often tape-recording payoff meetings, Mr. Teitelbaum's testimony in open court helped convict a number of top-ranking Southeastern ILA officials.

Mr. Teitelbaum told the Monitor he hopes to testify before a US senate panel this summer about "political" tieins with the waterfront corruption. He said the FBI already has this information.

Mr. Wampler hopes to see "some kind of responsible union leadership" emerging in the ILA. But so far there are no signs of this happening.

In a typical gesture of support for convicted leaders, a local ILa president here, Cleveland Turner, was reelected by a wide margin after being found guilty last September of extortion, racketeering, and other offenses.

Dockworkers these days often earn $25,000 or more a year, and people making wages like that are not likely to "make waves," Mr. Evans says. They have more to lose than gain, since union official control who is sent out for work each day, federal prosecutors point out.

At the ILA union hall here on Second Avenue longshoremen gather in the mornings in a big second-floor hall and await their day's loading or unloading assignments. Asked about the recent string of convictions of ILA officials, one office worker at the union hall said: "We don't have no troubles here."

While most members of the longshoremen's local here are black, the ILA local of checkers (who tally what items are loaded or unloaded) is mostly white.At the checkers' local headquarters here, an ILA official refused to identify himself or discuss the convictions of union officials, Four years of investigations is "enough," he said.

But others insist four years is not enough.

US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations, has directed the staff to make a preliminary investigation into waterfront corruption, focusing on the ILA.

The subcommittee is in "good shape" for such a probe, says its counsel, Marty Steinberg. It now working for it S. Michael Levin, a former Justice Department prosecutor for Unirac, and Ray Maria, who was the FBI's chief Unirac investigator for the Southeast.

Among possible changes in federal laws the subcommittee may consider: making payoffs involving union and company officials felonies instead of misdemeanors; making payoffs between companies in interstate commerce federal violations; permitting federal investigation of questionable union elections without having to wait for a complaint from a union member; requiring that union officials convicted of racketeering at least be temporarily suspended. (Currently they may stay in office until all court appeals are exhausted.)

Lacking felony penalties for a single payoff, the FBI relied for many of its Unirac prosecutions on the federal racketeering law. It provides for sentences of up to 20 years for two or more of a long list of crimes, including extortion and bribery.


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.