ILA case starts in furor, ends in whimper

March 31, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- On the dreary west side of town known as "Hell's Kitchen," two tour ships and several large old Navy vessels bobbing in the polluted Hudson are the sole nautical remnants of what once was the core of the largest port in the world.

It is here that the government has centered its most recent case against the International Longshoremen's Association. It is here, the government asserted, that ILA President John Bowers' uncle and father had once run rackets that Mr. Bowers himself had inherited and continued.

And it is here that a settlement last week produced results suggesting the government's sound and fury has come to little, if anything at all.

As has been the result after innumerable other cases launched against the longshoremen, the head of the union has survived scathing accusations of malfeasance, and, as has been the result before, expiation is limited to lesser officials and lesser areas of the ILA.

Mr. Bowers will remain head of the parent international and, despite the imposition of supervised elections, will likely remain head of two of the three locals serving the West Side. He will resign leadership of the third local, not because of corruption but because he directly employs its members, including one as his secretary, and therefore agreed that a conflict existed between his role as a representative and a manager.

"There are a lot of smiles around here," said Ernest Mathews, an ILA attorney. A union spokesman, James McNamara, added, "The government was trying to get rid of John Bowers. It's what they said from the beginning -- they'd take Bowers down and they'd take the international down with him, and they didn't."

The now largely deserted West Side piers of New York were a curious focus for a case against the ILA. The docks had little economic relevance when the case was launched in early 1990 and remain largely economically irrelevant today.

But they have strong historic and political ties that made them pertinent to a case that drew heavily from both union history and union politics to allege that the vast New York and New Jersey waterfront was caught in a half-century-old "stranglehold" of organized crime.

Until the end of the 1950s, the docks crowding the southwestern end of Manhattan served as the primary transfer point for people and goods between the United States and Europe. The critical longshoremen's local was 824, whose president, according to government documents, was Mickey Bowers, a convicted bank robber and parole violator, and whose business agent was his cousin Harold Bowers, a four-time felon and father of John Bowers.

During the past four decades, the importance of the piers, and the ILA local, was undermined by the emergence of intercontinental air travel and the evolution of the shipping industry from bulk cargo to containers.

The last of the major freight operations closed in the 1970s. Now a single pier with six berths handles the remnants of the cruise ship business. Whereas decades ago thousands of ILA members worked in the area, today, the union says, total membership on the West Side is less than 300.

Local 824 has just 60 to 70 members, whose primary job is to handle baggage from the occasional, and very seasonal, ocean cruiser that calls in New York. The other ILA members, in locals 1809 and 1909, work as ticket-takers at the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier Museum, or as office clerks.

Still, the West Side locals provided an interesting target for prosecutors for one major reason. They were all headed by John Bowers, in addition to his role as head of the international.

This was made clear in February 1990 when U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh made a rare appearance before the New York press to announce the filing of a comprehensive racketeering suit alleging "a pattern of murder, extortion and payoffs to union officials of West Side ILA locals, including the current international president of the ILA, John Bowers."

The local U.S. attorney, Otto Obermaier, asserted the case was "a precise, carefully drawn legal effort to end La Cosa Nostra's corruption of the ILA locals and the waterfront." The suit demanded that the current leadership of the three Manhattan locals (and three others in New Jersey and Brooklyn) be expunged from all union activity. Had that been achieved, Mr. Bowers would have been banished and the leadership of the ILA profoundly altered.

The case attracted widespread interest and intensive efforts by defense attorneys and government agencies, including numerous prosecutors, the FBI, the Waterfront Commission and the Labor Department.

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