The smell of raw seafood is embedded in the cobblestones and pavement of the streets surrounding the Fulton Fish Market, the nation's largest wholesale fish emporium. Located near the southern tip of Manhattan, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and near the upscale South Street Seaport retail development, the 173-year-old market handles about 500,000 pounds of bass, haddock, clams and other seafood a day, a $1-billion annual business.
But New York City officials assert fish aren't the only cause of the Fulton Fish Market's stench. Contending the presence of organized crime has pervaded the market for decades, inflating prices and discouraging competition, the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is cracking down on the firms that do business there.
Since Sunday night, a Long Island-based company best known for its office-cleaning abilities has been handling the job of unloading the fish from delivery trucks, displacing six long-established firms the city alleges are in cahoots with organized crime. About 40 employees from the displaced firms immediately and aggressively manned picket lines, spreading dissension and hoping for sympathy from market wholesalers, truckers and buyers.
The city now appears to be firmly in control, despite what can only be termed a disastrous debut, when trucks full of fish sat unloaded for hours. Sabotage knocked out lighting at the market, and a wildcat strike by employees of the market's 60 wholesalers in the wee hours of Monday brought all business to a standstill.
"We've made a major step forward in the Giuliani Administration's effort to reform the Fulton Fish Market," said Randy Mastro, the mayor's chief of staff.
The city contends, and few dispute, that truckers had to make payments under the table for their vehicles to be unloaded in a timely fashion.
"We now have a new unloading firm in place that unloads trucks on a first-come, first-serve basis at a substantially reduced cost," Mastro said. "This is a good thing for the market, and will ultimately be a good thing for consumers."
City officials say 68 trucks were able to complete deliveries Thursday morning by the time fish buyers began to show up at the market about 3:30 a.m. That's only three less than last Thursday.
However, representatives of the unloaders say the city delivery statistics are inflated. "It's a falsehood," said Gerald J. McMahon, an attorney representing the banished firms and their employees. "If there were more than 35 trucks [on Thursday], I will eat my hat."
This week's operations are taking place with about 250 police officers present to keep the peace and check the identification of anyone seeking to enter the market for any reason.
Giuliani has threatened to replace other employees or even close the famed institution if order is not kept.
"It would be better for the city actually not to have the Fulton Fish Market if it's going to be operated the way it has been for the last 40, 50, 60 years," Giuliani said at a Monday press conference.
Legislation passed by the City Council earlier this year gave the Giuliani Administration increased authority over the market, which sold its first fish in 1822. In addition to booting the six unloading firms, the city has also raised rents substantially, and removed six wholesalers who did not pass background checks.
None of the unloading firms have ever been indicted on charges related to organized-crime activities. However, five of the six companies were fined $200,000 in 1992 for taking part in a price-fixing scheme.
Representatives of the banished firms now say they plan to file a lawsuit against the city in federal court next week, alleging slander and violation of civil rights. "If people have evidence of us being mobsters they better have evidence to support it," McMahon said.
In a blow to the displaced firms, some of the truckers who stayed away from the Manhattan market for several days earlier in the week are planning to return.
"I've been assured things are in better shape," said Nicky Avelis, manager of Old Port Seafood in Gloucester, Mass. Avelis said he will send a truck containing cod, haddock and flounder fillets into New York today. "My load will be a little bit smaller than usual. I'm going to walk before I run."
Many of the displaced workers can cite a generations-long history of working with fish, adding a bitterness to the dispute that goes beyond simple economics.
Ask how people arrived at their position, and they quickly tell of uncles, fathers, even grandfathers, who made a living from the sea. They are a sharp contrast to the largely minority work force now employed by Laro Maintenance Corp. to unload the seafood.
"My family's been unloading since the 1930s," said Jerry Prisinzano, 50, who has a brother, a nephew, a father and four uncles who work or have worked at the market.
An active presence on the picket line, Prisinzano vows to never give up. "I'm staying here till I get my job back," he said.
But despite the brave talk, there is a sinking feeling as well.
"I'm standing out here freezing watching other people do my job," said John Gillio, 26, an unloader with eight years' experience. "Honestly, I'm not optimistic."
And as the fish wholesalers and their employees went about their work in the Thursday morning darkness, removing fish from crates, slicing fillets and bargaining with buyers from the city's restaurants and retailers, they sounded apologetic that they were not able to do more to aid their friends and colleagues.
"We can't protest no more. Giuliani will shut us down if we do that. We don't want trouble here--we've got families to support," said Jeff Sabitini, 33, a journeyman who delivers fish to area buyers. "I feel the unloaders got pushed out and got a raw deal."