The Shipping News

Photo by Vivek Suri.

Michael Vasaturo leads me through maritime fog that covers the Port of New Haven one cool March morning. The cranes of the bulk freighter Cyrenaica G. loom in the blurry distance. As the short, gold-necklaced Vasaturo and I walk along the wharf of New Haven Terminal (NHT), the shipping company where he serves as executive director, he describes a project poised to change the future of the local shipping industry. “The biggest thing that’s going on right now is trying to dredge,” he tells me, referencing a joint initiative of the New Haven Port Authority, the Connecticut Port Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the shipping channel from thirty-five to at least forty feet. The managers of the Port’s seven other terminal companies share Vasaturo’s enthusiasm. In his large, dark office, Vasaturo tells me they all benefit if the port develops. “We all want dredging,” he says, as we look across the wharf. By ‘all,’ Vasaturo means his executive colleagues at the Port’s six other terminal companies, all of whom are involved in planning the development. Less clear, at least in this conversation, are the wishes of the terminal employees, repairing machinery and loading trucks in the yard below.

The East Coast shipping industry is changing in step with a globalized world. Soon, a widened Panama Canal will give larger ships from East Asia access to East Coast ports like New York and Norfolk. As these shipping centers expand, “the smaller ships are going to get priced out,” Tommy Seda, a former tugboat mate at Gateway Terminal, believes. But if these vessels can’t compete with larger boats at the region’s biggest terminals, Seda thinks there’s another option: “What better place to go than just good old New Haven, right down the street?”

Seda’s comment captures New Haven’s position in a Northeastern industrial hierarchy. The city knows that it’s no New York, where, Vasaturo reflects, “there’s always vessels in the port, because they supply all the big companies, all the Walmarts, the Targets, the fruit people.” But managers like Vasaturo and Evan Matthews, Director of the Connecticut Port Authority, want it to benefit from the same global trends that make New York prosper. New Haven will never be New York, but it can fill the regional niches its neighbor leaves vacant. “Once the channel gets deepened to forty feet, it’ll be on par with Providence, Boston,” Matthews says over the phone. “It’ll be a deep-water port that’ll help all those companies compete with cargo.” 

The future of the port looks different from the ground. Cut off from the city by locked fences, security guards, railroad tracks, and I-95, this industrial ecosystem goes largely unnoticed. But on the distant eastern shore of the New Haven Harbor, a legion of terminals and tugboats form the fifty-third largest port in the U.S. Out of New Haven flow gravel and scrap metal, towering in one hundred-foot piles on Gateway Terminal’s property. Much more enters than leaves –– imports include seventy percent of Connecticut’s petroleum. “In terms of petroleum, New Haven may be one of the largest ports on the East Coast,” Vasaturo speculates, as we pass fields of circular white fuel tanks and sprawling pipe lattices.

Although the Port of New Haven fuels the city’s fifty thousand trade, transportation, and utilities jobs, it operates under particular and demanding labor rules.

Although the Port of New Haven fuels the city’s fifty thousand trade, transportation, and utilities jobs, it operates under particular and demanding labor rules. The erratic nature of shipping in a small port like New Haven requires many workers to structure their employment around irregular gigs. “It’s a pretty well-synchronized operation, because time is –– everything is –– about production,” Vasaturo says. There’s a lot of production at stake. Ninety percent of global trade is carried over the sea in bulk freighters, container ships, and tankers. At New Haven, unlike the constantly busy Port of New York, this trade comes in fits and starts. While petroleum is, according to Vasaturo, “a pretty regular business,” the arrival of ships carrying dry cargo is negotiated by agents of the terminal company and the shipping company, and based on local demand. “They were very busy with vessels last week, you know, unloading steel,” Vasaturo says, pointing to an empty barge sitting one wharf over, at a terminal owned by NHT and leased by another company he declined to name for confidentiality reasons. Until regional manufacturers run out of steel coil and the agents reconnect, no one knows when the next barge will arrive.

At the Port of New Haven, because of the unpredictable work cycle, terminals find ways to pay workers only when they’re needed. Vasaturo describes the composition of NHT’s workforce before the company left the dry cargo business. “There were the people that worked full time, what we call our terminal workers,” Vasaturo explains, “and they loaded trucks and managed the warehouse.” The neon-clad men welding to loud rock music in a tool-crammed, tin-roofed shed at the base of the NHT wharf were terminal workers. “And then there were what you would call traditional stevedores, and they would only work when there were vessels.” When NHT handled dry cargo, they’d call in stevedores, the men responsible for getting cargo off the ships and onto the wharf, and pay them until the unloading was finished. Many of these workers belonged to the International Longshoremen’s Association, the AFL-CIO union for stevedores working on the East Coast, from Canada to Puerto Rico. The ILA in New Haven disbanded in the mid-2000s, and all Port workers are currently non-union, full-time employees of the terminal companies. Full-time, however, doesn’t necessarily mean all the time.   

The erratic nature of shipping requires many workers to structure their unemployment around irregular gigs. “It’s a pretty well-synchronized operation, because time is –– everything is –– about production,” Vasaturo says.

“I was used to it,” says Seda, who until 2017 was a full-time employee of Gateway Terminal, of his intermittent work schedule. “But it’s hard when you have kids at home.” While Vasaturo works on the dry-land, business end of the industry, the tall, soft-spoken Seda has spent his life on the water. He came up “through the hawsepipe,” starting off as a volunteer deckhand at fourteen, learning on the job, and climbing his way up to officer. After years of captaining tall ships –– old commercial sailing vessels –– at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum, Seda moved to New Haven in 2013. For a year, he captained the schooner Quinnipiac, then docked at Long Wharf and owned by the educational nonprofit Schooner Inc.

Seda was the last captain of the Quinnipiac before financial troubles forced Schooner Inc. to sell it off. Afterwards, he used some connections in the small maritime world to land a job at Gateway. Despite his captain’s rank, Seda started out as a deckhand on the Gateway tugs. Once he took some classes and got a towing license, he got promoted to mate. “The guys on the tugboats work a two-week long schedule, so they show up on the tug and live on the tug for two weeks,” he explains. They’d get paid during the two weeks on, but not during the two weeks off, during which Seda would travel with his wife and take part-time jobs in construction and ship maintenance. During his on-weeks, there was usually maintenance work to be done, even if no vessels were entering the harbor. “They’re steel tugs,” Seda says, “so all they want to do is rust. It’s a constant battle against rust.” It was only once “in a very blue moon” that there wasn’t enough work and Gateway would tell its tug workers, some of whom flew in from Florida or drove down from Maine, not to come in for their two-week shifts. 

Even given the weeks without pay, Seda is gracious to his former employer, telling me that Gateway tries to avoid leaving workers without jobs and provides full benefits. He describes New Haven’s shipping industry as a relatively prosperous, fraternal environment, largely free of conflict between workers and companies, despite the turbulence of the workforce. “[In] such a small industry, there’s plenty of work to go around, so there’s no need to be that competitive,” Seda says.

Vasaturo describes collaboration at higher levels of the industry. “Everybody knows everybody,” he says of the terminal companies and managers. To Vasaturo, the amicability comes from a shared desire to make the Port as regionally competitive and productive as possible. Dredging and other infrastructure projects, regardless of how they affect workers, may keep the port relevant as trade patterns change. 

Of the three ports in Connecticut –– New Haven, New London, and Bridgeport –– New Haven is the only one that is neither diminutive nor in a state of decline. The inconsistency and infrastructure requirements of the shipping industry have taken a toll. “There used to be a stevedoring terminal in Bridgeport,” Vasaturo tells me frankly, “but it’s not open for stevedoring anymore.” New Haven has seen some trouble, too. NHT went bankrupt in 1994, and subsequently abandoned dry cargo shipping. “When we came out of bankruptcy in 1996, we looked at the best way for our company to rebuild, and it was to lease out and not be the operator of the cargo business,” Vasaturo says.

Seda thinks there’s another option: “What better place to go than just good old New Haven, right down the street?”

Matthews, the Port Authority Director, hopes to strengthen New Haven’s dry cargo business, and in the process reduce the number of trucks leaving the Port of New York and crowding the I-95 on their way to Connecticut.  The Port Authority is currently battling the Connecticut Department of Transportation over some parcels of land on the Port grounds, and if they win this extra space, he may want to add specialized terminals to handle containers. Processing these huge metal boxes relies heavily on automation, which Matthews sees as essential. “I would say it definitely absolutely has to occur,” he tells me, “because the rest of the world is automating its terminals.” In an automated port, “instead of being out driving equipment,” Matthews explains, “you’re sitting in front of a computer screen and you’re operating three cranes at once as opposed to one.”

What happens to the other two crane operators is unclear. Perhaps understandably, then, he’s faced opposition from the ILA, which has an active branch at the Port of New London. “The major frustration in the United States,” he says with audible irritation, “is that the ILA and the unions refuse to modernize, and all their competing ports across the world are modernizing.” Matthews’ duty as Port Authority Director is to keep New Haven, and the other Connecticut ports, competitive as the industry transforms. More ships hopefully mean more frequent employment. But at the administrative level, the lines connecting prosperity for the Port to prosperity for the workers have yet to be drawn.

When I ask Seda if he thinks the Port has a bright future, he seems mildly amused, and ponders for a moment. “I think so,” he replies. “I think compared to places like Bridgeport, it’s better off.” He believes its survival doesn’t depend on dredging or other improvements. Without these changes, he assumes “it’ll kind of just stay the same,” with enough work to do and enough jobs to go around. This work’s dispersal in two-week intervals may just be the way it is, an inevitable condition of the shipping industry in New Haven. That said, Seda’s stakes in the matter have changed. Since leaving Gateway, he’s been working for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as a research vessel captain.

Vasaturo doesn’t discuss dredging in terms of labor, but instead imagines the Port becoming, bigger, more profitable, more like New York. “It’s going to give more opportunities,” he says. Anticipation aside, he doesn’t seem concerned about the Port’s present state. “It’s a fun industry,” he tells me, as we stand at his office window. Vasaturo points down to a small shed in the terminal yard. “That little white building is where our hourly workers congregate, and their time cards are in there, so I can really see everything from here,” he says. Mixed with the whirr of machinery and beeps of trucks in reverse, rock music floats in through the glass. 

— Dimitri Diagne is a senior in Berkeley College.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *