SOLIDARITY Split along racial lines, the port's largest union local was also its weakest. But Ed Burke and Rocky McKenzie have ended the infighting and earned the respect of members and management.

January 07, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Tony Revels used to be embarrassed to tell people he worked as a longshoreman because of the turmoil that seemed to be a constant in his union. He isn't embarrassed anymore.

"I'm proud to say I'm a member of the ILA," Mr. Revels said recently at the International Longshoremen's Association hiring hall in East Baltimore.

Mr. Revels, at 31, is one of the youngest longshoremen in the port of Baltimore. But in his 12 years as a member of Local 333 he has seen more than he cared to of leaders who played on racial divisions in the membership.

"We had some real illiterates," he said of the past Local 333 leadership, both white and black.

Under the leadership of President Edward Burke, who is white, and Vice President Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, who is black, the racial frictions that kept the members of Local 333 divided for over a decade are now largely gone. "The racial tension isn't there like it used to be," Mr. Revels said. "There's more brotherhood."

Mr. Revels is not alone in that view. Members of the local, white and black, are almost unanimous in affirming the success Mr. Burke and Mr. McKenzie have had in ending the racial politics and infighting that had plagued Local 333 since its creation in 1973 from the court-ordered merger of two segregated locals.

"I'm more than happy. This is the best leadership we've had in 2 years," said Charles Speck, a 49-year-old white longshoreman who has worked on the docks since 1963.

James L. Bennett, a black crane operator agreed. "Right now we're more together than we've ever been," he said, giving Mr. Burke and Mr. McKenzie most of the credit. "I think they did as good a job as anybody who's been around here. They stood right together, fought right together."

By all accounts, the success of Mr. Burke and Mr. McKenzie has been based on one simple principle: sticking together.

That, of course, is the underlying idea of any successful union. But over the years the membership of Local 333 had learned through long, painful experience that the actions of their leaders seemed to be driven more by race than solidarity. Black members had become deeply suspicious of white officials, and the same attitude was true of white members toward black leaders.

The racial turbulence that characterized Local 333 for most of its history had profound implications for the local's members. Local 333 is by far the largest ILA group in the port. Its 1,250 members make up almost two-thirds of all the dockworkers in the port. Despite that large majority, Local 333 had never been able to exert influence in proportion to its numbers during contract negotiations.

As long as the members of Local 333 remained evenly divided along racial lines, their message was lost in the din of their own internal squabbling. During contract ratification votes, the membership would generally split down the middle, leaving the balance of power in the hands of smaller, more unified locals.

Management realized that to avoid a strike it had to reach an accommodation with the smaller locals. In that situation, the clerks of Local 953, under the strong leadership of Richard P. Hughes Jr., became the dominant union group in the negotiations.

Even though the clerks had only about a third as many members as Local 333, a bloc vote from them provided the margin that management needed to pass a contract.

Over the years, the clerks negotiated good contracts while the members of Local 333 fumed over the inability of their leaders to protect their interests. Mr. Burke observed that management had no compelling need to offer much to his local. "Why give that local anything?" was the way management saw the situation, according to Mr. Burke. "Half are going to vote against and half are going to vote for, no matter what we do."

That frustration was often felt far beyond the union hall, since the turbulence within Local 333 had a nasty habit of spilling over onto the docks.

If Local 333 leaders had little power in negotiations, they had enormous power to disrupt cargo operations through wildcat strikes. It was a power they sometimes used, a fact that contributed to Baltimore's worldwide reputation in the maritime industry for labor instability.

In the old days, Mr. Burke said, if a union member saw a unio leader on the docks it probably meant a work stoppage was about to occur. "The only time you saw the president or the vice president was to knock a ship off. If you saw the president or the vice president, you knew you were going home," Mr. Burke said.

Of course disputes still arise on the docks, but none of them have led to any work stoppages since Mr. Burke and Mr. McKenzie took office in 1988.

Grievance proceedings and arbitration hearings may be a lot less dramatic than work stoppages, but that's how disputes are resolved these days. "We try to take things through the normal steps," Mr. McKenzie explained.

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