March 2- 8, 2006
philly bluntWhat's Really Up at the Dock
But not once did they pour a port whine about how dangerous their job is. You couldn't blame them if they did, considering a co-worker's head got crushed under a multiton container a while back.
Nor did they chime in on the Dubai business that wants to buy a stake in the parent company of their employer, Delaware River Stevedores (DRS). And they very easily could have, considering that their desolate outpost at the end of paved-over railroad tracks is one of the six U.S. ports currently caught up in an international controversy.
Instead of worrying about unloading civilization-altering nuclear suitcases, these men's men were fixated on how run-of-the-mill pay-to-play politics could soon cost them their jobs.
"I'm a fourth-generation longshoreman," said James Lamb, his overalls caked with the grime associated with working along the Delaware. "We need to protect our wages, family-sustaining wages. Otherwise, guys like me won't be able to carry on a [family] legacy."
You see, Lamb's peers think Gov. Ed Rendell is using the port-security uprising as a smoke screen to covertly shift control of Tioga from a long-standing, hardworking company to a buddy who has shipped five-figure donations to his campaign coffers. Making matters worse is that the buddy has a reputation for making well-paid union jobs disappear. But despite statements from Harrisburg that such concerns are "unwarranted"Rendell spokeswoman Kate Phillips says her boss will continue to support Local 1291 of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)I can't blame them for being nervous.
This is, after all, Philly, and everybody's looking the other way in a fit of xenophobic paranoia while the Tioga longshoremen fight against a rushing tide of union-busting and monopolization. And if their worst-case scenario materializes, it'll be too late for public outcry to stop at least 100 well-paying union jobs from evaporating.
"It would be a blow to union labor as a whole, and to the working-class people of Philadelphia," says Local 1291's beefy president, Boise Butler. "This [Dubai] situation couldn't have come at a worse time for us."
By now, we've all heard enough about that situation. Whether Dubai Ports World should have a stake in our ports isn't the point; Rendell's response last week is.
The option on DRS's lease is up for review in May. And last week, Rendell said the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA) is going to "reconsider the lease" and put it out for bids. The intimation was that it was to keep Dubai out, but the Tioga longshoremen say this has been in the works for a while. The controversy, they maintain, is just the perfect cover for Thomas Holt Jr., owner of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philly and the Gloucester Marine Terminal in South Jersey, to complete a stranglehold on their industry.
He did, after all, try to get the facility a few years back and has a lot to gain by getting it this go-round. Fueling concerns that backroom deals will jeopardize some 100 ILA jobs is the fact that Holt gave Rendell's campaign $12,500 in 2000, $5,000 in 2001 and $20,000 in 2002. And that's why Rendell and the PRPA want to push the Stevedores out for no good reason. (The option comes after the fourth year of a 10-year deal DRS signed with the state.)
If Holt gets Tioga, they say, his port monopoly could set any price for ships to bring their cargo here. And, as ILA officials say he did in South Jersey, he could replace well-paid union workers with cheap laborers who have to worry about getting their own health insurance.
Both Rendell's office and PRPA spokesman Bill McLaughlin say no decisions have been made, but foreign shipping companies are already threatening to pull out.
The senior vice president of CSAV, a South American company that ships Chilean fruit to Tioga, wrote a letter stating, "It came as a shock to us to hear that the governor's office was apparently contemplating to change the terminal operator from DRS to Holt. This would be a grave mistake."
And on Nov. 21, 2005, another fruit shipper, Oppenheimer, stated such a change "will result in our relocation to a more stable environment at the Port of Wilmington."
These companies chose DRS despite an inferior location (Tioga's further upriver than Holt) and infrastructure (there's no railroad access and only one crane at Tioga, compared to three rail lines and seven cranes at Packer; Gloucester boasts of the East Coast's biggest refrigeration facility). So to them, this thing's personal.
Same for Butler. While he's quick to say he's "not a Holt basher"he and several longshoremen lauded Holt for expanding the local industryhe's also going to "do anything in our power to protect our membership."
Before things get nasty down on the waterfront, Rendell and the DRPA should scrap any designs on putting Tioga up for bid, Dubai paranoia be damned. If the fact that DRS has done nothing to deserve getting muscled out via a contractual loophole isn't justification enough, the potential of lost jobs and business should be.
It's the right thing to do, whether people are paying attention or not.
Free Them Now
With the ports leading every newscast, let's not forget that human traffickers also use those facilities to further their depraved enterprises. That phenomenon needs to stay in America's consciousness, which is exactly what Brat Productions aims to do with its upcoming Causeway performance series. The two-week series designed to raise public awareness about "modern slavery" kicks off March 8. (For more information, check out the ArtsPick on page 29.)
"If you asked me three years ago if slavery still existed, I probably would have said yes," says Madi Distefano, Brat's founding artistic director, "but I had no idea it was so widespread and prevalent, and going on right here in Philadelphia. This is a topic that needs awareness."
You can do more than watch, too. Log on to www.bratproductions.org and pony up $25 for a Causeway carabiner clip to help Brat reach its goal of raising $5,000 to help support anti-human-trafficking initiatives.