On the waterfront today: mob rule wears white collar
Organized crime remains in tight control of the New York waterfront, with the cooperation of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and local shipping and stevedore firms, say FBI agents, congressional investigators, and othe law-enforcement offiicals here.
This is despite a recent series of investigations, indictments, convictions, and congressional hearings.
This mob dominance of America's leading port is fostered through sophisticated, "white collar" techniques perfected in recent decades. But still underpinning the system, law- enforcement officials say, is the kind of violence portrayed in "On the Waterfront," the classic Elia Kazan-Marlon Brando movie of the early 1950s.
Just-concluded hearings on waterfront crime before the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations focused primarily on the economic stranglehold that organized crime, with its dominance of the ILA, has over shippers and stevedore firms. Investigators told the Monitor that millions of dollars are paid either directly or indirectly to organized crime in the Port of New York alone to avert work slowdowns and for the distribution of contracts to selected companies.
Of 32 local and national officials of the ILA who have been convicted as a result of a fiveyear US Justice Department investigation of waterfront racketeering, seven played key roles in white-collar corruption in the Port of New York, these sources say.
But behind the web of "economic fear" that hangs like a persistent fog over the New York docks is the everpresent threat of physical violence. This, says FBI waterfront crime expert Ray Maria, continues even though "most of the mob's actual violence seems to be directed against themselves in terms of control."
"The prospect of some sort of physical violence has to be in the minds of people who are 'paying off,' "says one Senate subcommittee source. While federal investigations and resulting convictions may have made some shippers and stevedores "think twice" before making these payments, such activity is nonetheless so pervasive, this source adds, that "it has become a way of life."
Such federal strike forces as UNIRAC (for union racketeering) have successfully penetrated the ILA and waterfront firms by means of both human and electronic "plants." But their work, which may be threatened by the Reagan administration's possible deemphasis on white-collar crime, is hampered because -- according to Mr. Maria and others -- "the ILA and organized crime are one," at least in much of the Port of New York.
To address this and similar accusations, ILA president Thomas W. Gleason broke his characteristic silence at the subcommittee hearing late last month and said in a prepared statement: "I am here today to deny that -- emphatically, categorically, and without any reservation whatsoever. I neither received my office nor do I maintain my office by any means but through right of eletion by the rank and file of the union. I assure you, I'm part of no mob. Nobody controls me; i'm an independent guy."
Mr. Maria and some other investigators concede Mr. Gleason's point in the sense that "it's not a question of direct control of Mr. Gleason." But they point to those 32 convictions nationwide and the union's repeated failure to "clean house" as evidence that organized crime's influence is not only condoned by the union but is fostered by it as well.
The 1980 convictions of two New York-area men with links to both the ILA and organized crime, Michael Clemente and Tino Fiumara, showed "firmly and conclusively" that organized crime controls the union, US attorney William M. Tendy said at the time. The two men were found guilty for receiving payoffs of more than $1 million in waterfront racketeering and extortion schemes. Three ILA local presidents, who worked in concert with them, were convicted on the same charges.
Fiumara reputedly was a captain in the Genovese "family" -- one of the most ruthless of the five families who control much of organized crime in New York, including narcotics gambling, and extortion.
"When shippers or other companies are paying people like these," said one Senate investigator, "they are doing it not only in terms of economics, but also for fear of physical violence.
According to the indictment that led to his conviction, Clemente received -- among other things - at least $1 million directly from one shipping line in the period 1963-78. That sum, over such an extended period, means little, investigators say. But in the context of waterfront crime today, it serves as an example of how extortion methods have changed and yet remained the same.
In the 1940s and '50s, and even later -- before the ILA reached its current strength (more than 75,000 members) -- much of the crime was in the form of "shakedowns" directed against rank-and-file longshoremen. If they balked, they were expelled from the union, often beaten, and sometimes killed.
But over the years, as ILA contracts spelled greater security and better working conditions for the average longshoreman and more restrictions on shippers' control over the workers, racketeers began applying the screws to the shippers.
In doing so, experts say, they found not only a lack of resistance but also a gold mine. Whereas Clemente was alleged to have received $1 million from just one company, 20 years ago it would have taken hundreds of shakedowns of individual longshoremen to net a similar amount of money.
Most shipping executives are as reluctant to talk with reporters about waterfront crime as they are with law-enforcement officials. Those who are willing to talk "for the record" claim the entire industry has unfairly received a black eye from UNIRAC. And to an extent, some federal officials agree, they are right.
Says Richard McMahon, assistant vicepresident of Universal Maritime Service Corporation, a major New York stevedore firm: "Like in any industry, you have some bad people. But I've spent 26 years in this industry and I've found more good than bad."
Mr. McMahon says he does not think the ILA is controlled by the Mafia. "Many times," he says, "we don't agree with what the union does, but that is normal in any union-management relationship." He says his company has never offered any payoffs.
Meanwhile, investigators say, racketeering is perpetuated because many a convicted ILA official has handpicked his successor -- and the successor usually is well-ver sed in the ways of the waterfront.