President John Nardi explains the name “change,” positions on port employment issues and interstate controversy.

What’s in a Name? The New York Shipping Association recently changed its name—kind of. The association is still officially known by its original name, but it filed a legal “doing business as” [DBA] document which identifies it as the Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey.

The key roles of the organization, founded in 1955, are to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of maritime terminal operators with the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and to provide some of the labor force that moves cargo at the port.

“When we were first incorporated,” said John Nardi, the association’s president, “90% of the business in the port was in New York. Now, 90% is in New Jersey.”

The association’s original name tended to sow confusion among prospective employees and public officials in recent years. “I’ve been thinking about this name change for some time,” said Nardi, who has headed the organization since 2013.

Nardi, who recently was named person-of-the-year by the New York New Jersey Foreign Freight Forwarders and Brokers Association, related a story on the evolution of the name-change.

Several years back, at a town hall meeting on port employment, one of the audience members asked how to apply to become a longshoreman. “The person answering the question said, ‘Just go to New York Shipping Association (NYSA) and they’ll tell you what to do,’” Nardi related. “And the person in the crowd said, ‘Well, why do I have to go to the New York Shipping Association?’ And the guy said, ‘Because they’re the ones who handle the hiring.’ We didn’t realize until the next day that the person was really asking, ‘Why do I have to go to New York for a job in New Jersey?’”

Similar responses come when Shipping Association officials called on legislators in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, or the state’s representatives in Washington, D.C. “When we’d tell them we’re from the New York Shipping Association, they often ask, ‘Oh, so what are you doing here?’ said Nardi. “The name Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey better represents who we are and what we do.”

New Jersey’s Port Question

New Jersey’s dominance in regional port operations in recent years has represented a bone of contention between the two states, to the point where litigation between the two is now pending before the United States Supreme Court. At issue is the proposed dissolution by New Jersey of the Waterfront Commission, a bi-state agency that plays a key role in the hiring of longshore labor. It’s especially relevant at this moment when the port has seen cargo volumes increase by over 35% since 2019 and requires several hundred new port employees.

“You can’t just hire somebody off the street and make him a longshoreman,” said Nardi. “There is a significant amount of training that goes in into it. We find ourselves behind the curve right now.”

The Waterfront Commission tends to muck up the hiring process, according to Nardi, by “constantly moving the goalposts,” which is why “we support New Jersey having a greater say in how the port operates.” New port hires are divided evenly between referrals from the Shipping Association and the ILA and “the problem,” said Nardi, “is how the commission treats ILA referrals.”

The commission “changes the hiring process frequently,” he explained, “which sometimes invalidates workers who’ve already started the process.”

The commission has 50/50 representation from each state, and there needs to be a consensus between the states to make changes. “The end result is a constant bureaucratic stalemate,” said Nardi.

New Jersey passed legislation to dissolve the commission, resulting in pending litigation. The Shipping Association and the U.S. Department of Justice have both weighed in on New Jersey’s side. New York’s position is that the bi-state compact which formed the commission cannot be dissolved without New York’s consent.

Recruiting for the Waterfront

“If the federal government says New Jersey can leave,” said Nardi, “I would say there’s a pretty good chance” that New Jersey will succeed. If that proves to be the case, the New Jersey state police will provide oversight for the hiring of port workers in New Jersey.

When it comes to current hiring activities, employers are recruiting enough candidates to fill their slots “for the most part,” said Nardi. The shortfall comes in the percentage of military veterans they are able to attract.

“Twenty percent of the new hires are supposed to be veterans,” said Nardi, “but veteran unemployment levels right now are below national unemployment levels, which are low enough. We’re having a hard time finding honorably discharged veterans to fill that obligation.”

Most of the open jobs at the terminals are for drivers of straddle carriers and other port equipment. “The Shipping Association provides some basic training,” said Nardi, “and once the individual passes, they go to one of the marine terminals where the employer trains them directly on their machinery.” That can take anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on the candidate’s experience.

The labor shortfall at the terminals is perhaps the least of the problems facing the Port of New York and New Jersey right now. Because of the spike in cargo volumes, “dwell times of containers sitting on the piers are higher, often because the terminals are highly utilized,” said Nardi. “There’s no way to bring empties back and this has also led to a chassis shortage.”

The accumulation of empty containers at port facilities has also represented a problem for port operations, but one that Nardi has seen alleviated in recent weeks. The Port Authority’s recently-announced empty container fee “could be one of several factors affecting” the situation, he said. “There’s been quite an extraordinary effort by carriers to move the empties, whether that’s based on the proposed fees or whether it’s the ocean carriers being able to catch up with vessel capacity. We’re also hearing that volumes from Asia are coming down pretty substantially. In the last few weeks, there’s been a noticeable improvement in the fluidity in port operations.”

Port operations, as Nardi has already noted, overwhelmingly take place in facilities located in New Jersey. So why didn’t he rename his organization “The Shipping Association of New Jersey and New York? “We decided,” Nardi explained, “to align the name with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”