Did you hear the one about the two-year-old longshoreman? Neither had most people in Massachusetts – until recently. But truth is stranger than fiction. An ongoing investigation into hiring practices on the Boston docks has revealed the existence of a racket that for nearly two decades has hired children as ghost employees. It’s a scheme with union fingerprints all over it. Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is probing allegations that three locals affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) have been inflating their members’ wages. And he’s more than likely to come up with large group of culprits.
The arrangement works like this: The local issues a child, typically the son or daughter of a union member, a union card. That way, the kid qualifies as an employee. All he has to do is “work” a few hours a year. Once he’s old enough to get a real job on the docks, he’s got seniority – and a high income. Formally, the practice operates in a gray area of legality. Worker seniority is determined by the point at which a union member receives a card, regardless of the number of hours worked. But that doesn’t make it any less an abuse of the system. Unions have every incentive to start children at the youngest possible age in union “jobs.” Reilly’s office turned up one case in which a 2-year-old had been issued a Longshoremen’s card. Assuming that this toddler eventually starts a dock job at age 21, he’d be paid as if he had 19 years of seniority. Currently, that translates to around $28 an hour. By contrast, if he waited until 21 to obtain his union card he’d start out at only $16 an hour. So holding a ghost job since age two translates into a 75 percent pay increase by age 21 – nice work if you can get it.
Perverse incentives aside, the practice has a few explanations. First, for decades, Boston Longshoremen locals have been controlled by heavily Irish ethnic family networks. It’s not uncommon to find a grandfather, a father and a son belonging to the same union at the same time. Second, worker cargo assignments at the Conley (shipping) and Black Falcon (passenger) terminals vary on a daily basis. Anywhere from 50 to 100 longshoremen work the docks on a given day. But they come from a much larger pool of hundreds of union members and nonmember “scallywags” authorized to work when there aren’t enough card-carrying members to fill available shifts. The result of this, says one shipping official, is that a lot of employees work only a few shifts a year. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how a toddler could slip onto someone’s payroll unnoticed. Third and finally, ILA locals have locked the shipping companies’ trade group, the Boston Shipping Association, into a contract that keeps wages low for new union members, but at the cost of guaranteeing high wages for longtime members.
The scam was uncovered earlier this year when some shipping officials noticed that a new union member had the same name as a prominent longshoremen’s 10-year-old granddaughter. A check of her Social Security number by the Massachusetts Port Authority, or Massport, confirmed that she was the same person. Massport, which runs the Port of Boston, did a more extensive records check, discovering that as many as 30 children had been on the payrolls since 1986. The authority turned over records to the Attorney General’s office and the State Police. “The Attorney General is investigating allegations that the seniority of some union members has been fraudulently exaggerated, resulting in excessive wages paid,” said Kurt Schwartz, chief of the agency’s Criminal Bureau. State investigators want to subpoena documents and call witnesses before a grand jury.
ILA Locals 799, 800 and 805 are responding, in so many words, “I didn’t see nuthin’, officer.” Workers at the union hall on Summer Street in South Boston declined to comment on the revelations. A union member who answered the phone would not take down a message from a reporter, explaining, “I don’t know how to write.” ILA international spokesman James McNamara said his union’s ethical practices office will investigate allegations, but only “if there is something concrete.”
In the long run, the Longshoremen may be their own worst enemy. Inflated wages in Boston have given shipping firms that much more of an incentive to choose ports in New York City, Tidewater Virginia, and Halifax (Nova Scotia) for loading and unloading cargo. As recently as 2000, the three Boston locals under investigation had a combined 250 members. But with more North American ports further automating their systems, the number is down by about 30 percent. (Boston Globe, 6/9).