11/11/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Is the Latest Victim of Bureaucratic Meddling

If there was ever an anachronistic government body waiting to be placed in mothballs, it's the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. The WCNYH was established way back in 1953, and assigned the task of keeping mobsters from infiltrating the docks. But that was 60 years ago. Ike was president. It was the glory days of the now disgraced House Un-American Activities Committee. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Elvis Presley hadn't cut a record yet.

Sixty years later, the ILA and the New York Shipping Association (the NYSA, representing port employers) are locked in a dispute with the WCNYH over the hiring of approximately 680 new employees. The ILA and the NYSA want these people to be hired and put to work immediately in order to maintain the competitive position of the New Jersey/New York ports. But the WCNYH insists on conducting background checks to make sure the job applicants don't have ties to organized crime.

This might have been a productive exercise back in the days of the Marlon Brando movie, "On the Waterfront" (1954), which depicted mobsters running roughshod over the longshoremen's union, but those days are over.

Not only are unions, by and large, wildly democratic and corruption-free (even the Teamsters now adhere to the "one man, one vote" configuration), but the WCNYH ain't exactly the committee you want to put in charge of such an investigation.

Although the WCNYH may, in fact, have cleaned up its act, in 2009, the New York Times (August 8, 2009) reported that the New York State Inspector General, following a two-year investigation, had found "extensive illegal, corrupt and unethical behavior on the part of the Waterfront Commission." As a consequence, the majority of the WCNYH's executive staff were fired. That's not something you want to see in an oversight committee.

The part that disturbs outside observers is the role of the government. Its role should be to assist and support working people, not impede them from getting jobs in this post-recessionary economy. It's bad enough having a woefully under-staffed and over-worked NLRB unable to crack down on management violations of labor law, but when the WCNYH comports itself like a textbook example of a classic, self-absorbed bureaucracy, it invites blowback.

As the old maxim goes, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is going to look like a nail to you." Unfortunately, that mentality seems to be the mind-set of the WCNYH. Just as the Spanish Inquisition was dedicated to exposing infidels, and the HUAC rejoiced in labeling "Commies," the WCNYH was created solely to ferret out mobsters.

And the Commission is going to do its damnedest to find them, even if they don't exist, and even if it means stalling a process that desperately needs to be expedited. Clearly, no one is conflating the Waterfront Commission with HUAC. But let's do the arithmetic. When HUAC ran out of Commies, they ceased to exist. Accordingly, should the WCNYH run out of waterfront mobsters, these bureaucrats will be out of a job.

The president of the AFL-CIO's transportation trades council has viewed the matter to be sufficiently serious to warrant writing personally to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, asking them to intervene in the dispute. While the early signs (for a multitude of reasons) have not been especially promising, this thing has a ways to go. One hopes common sense comes to the rescue.

If government agencies wish to address corruption and fraud, more power to them. Eliminating corruption is a good thing. But if they are truly serious about such an endeavor, instead of sniffing around the docks, they need to do it right. They need to set up shop on Wall Street.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), is a former labor union rep.