New York — Shipping companies and labor unions alike say there is general, unprecedented peace between them as they begin the 1980s. This unity, they say, is founded basically on two things that show how far organized labor has come as a force on the waterfront in the past few decades, despite continuing problems of crime.
First and foremost, according to numerous interviews with representatives of both sides, is the question of economic survival.
Dockworkers have seen their ranks continually thinned by increased containerization and mechanization. Seamen have watched the US merchant marine decline rapidly, hard hit by foreign competition. And now they are faced with a deepening recession.
Under these pressures, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), an AFL-CIO affiliate, and major elements of the Atlantic and Gulf coast shipping industry recently completed a historic master contract four months ahead of schedule.
Second, over the last several years especially, there have been growing attempts to get the companies and the unions to understand each other's problems through seminars and panel discussions as well as more advance work on specific contract negotiations.
Much credit for fostering the meaningful dialogue is given to the National Maritime Council, which started in 1971 as an arm of the US Commerce Department and in 1978 became a private organization.
Then, too, in recent years individuals have emerged on the labor scene such as Frank Drozak, executive vice-president of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), another AFL-CIO affiliate, who have recognized that mediation and conciliation can often be used to better advantage than broadsides and strikes.
"We know we can't kill the goose that lays the eggs," Mr. Drozak said in an interview at his office, near the sprawling Brooklyn waterfront.
Mr. Drozak, a tall, muscular man with big-boned hands, says his union is optimistic about wrapping up the major elements of a new contract before the current one expires next June. Negotiations will get under way in January, he added, a full six months before a contract is due.
It should be pointed out, however, that the SIU has developed, especially in the last decade, a great rapport with the shipping industry, while the ILA and shippers had previously remained at each other's throats. Since World War II, the ILA has had a strike every three years, with the exception of 1974. Job security has been a chief area of contention.
In this perspective, the ILA's master contract, coming four months ahead of schedule, was all the more surprising. Still, it could signal a new trend for the union, according to Allan Zack Jr., chief spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. "The significance is that this is a dockside union, as opposed to a seagoing union," he said.
But the contract, which covers roughly 50,000 workers in 30 ports from Maine to Texas, was not without a high price. ILA spokesmen say the contract amounted to a net increase in wages of 34 percent over three years, well in excess of President Carter's voluntary wage and price guidelines. Furthermore, the contract hinges on the outcome of a crucial US Supreme Court decision. That decision is expected to be handed down this summer.
At issue is the so-called "50-mile rule," which has given the ILA the sole jurisdiction to load and unload van-size loads of ship cargo anywhere within 50 miles of the waterfront. The nation's shippers in 1968 agreed to this practice, but in 1974 the National Labor Relations Board challenged it, saying it was illegal. The matter rests with the high court.
Even if the court rules against the ILA, the union has agreed not to strike over this issue before next Feb. 1, giving the union and shippers time to agree on some kind of compensation in lieu of the practice.
Another potential stumbling block to full ILA labor peace before the first of February is that some local affiliates of the union, which have great autonomy, may balk at the terms of the master contract. "I predict that they are going to have some problems," the SIU's Mr. Drozak told the Monitor.
Individual ILA union locals have raised crime as well as contract problems.
ILA crime "On the Waterfront" long antedates the Marlon Brando movie by the same name. Blue-collar crime has decreased dramatically, according to a great many experts, including local police around the nation and the US Department of Justice. However, far more subtle union white-collar crime, sometimes done in close relationship with organized-crime factions, has taken the spotlight.
At the same time, Justice Department sources have told the Monitor, the biggest breakthrough ever in combating white-collar crime on the docks was the conviction in Federal District Court in Manhattan earlier this year of Anthony M. Scotto, the president of Local 1814 of the ILA, on charges of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, income-tax evasion for two years, filing of false income tax returns, and "receiving unlawful labor payments" under the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Mr. Scotto, who had pleaded not guilty, is appealing the conviction.
Depending on their outcome, other cases, too, could have a significant impact on reducing white-collar waterfront crime, federal authorities add. But they are facing a tough road ahead. One of the biggest problems they have is getting someone to cooperate with the law and "talk" when it is so dangerous to do in such a comparatively close-knit society. Another problem is that some of the people who authorities believe to be the biggest offenders are the ones who have benefited their union and community the most, to all appearances.