Maritime union elects challenger

February 21, 1991|By Michael K. Burns Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

Challenger Timothy A. Brown captured the presidency of a Baltimore-based national maritime officers union yesterday, ousting a 12-year incumbent in a rerun election ordered by the federal courts because of election fraud and ballot forgery in 1988.

Mr. Brown, 48, of Tampa, Fla., was elected president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots by a vote of 2,489 to 2,079 over Robert T. Lowen in balloting supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor.

His running mate, James T. Hopkins Jr., defeated incumbent secretary-treasurer F. Elwood Kyser, 2,426 to 2,106. The federal agency is to certify the election results within 10 days.

By coincidence, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld yesterday a 1988 lower court ruling which had helped Mr. Brown promote his campaign with union members. The Supreme Court's ruling gave dissident challengers like Mr. Brown a guaranteed right to have the union send out campaign literature to members for them, despite its own election rules.

Mr. Brown lost the original election in 1988by 105 votes to Mr. Lowen, who has been president since 1978. Mr. Kyser defeated Mr. Hopkins by 275 votes.

Judge Marvin J. Garbis of the Baltimore District federal court ordered the rerun last September, finding irregularities in voting among Panama Canal-based members, including forged ballot signatures, were sufficient to influence the outcome.

Ballots were mailed to about 6,800 members on Nov. 21 and counted yesterday at the union's training school in Linthicum Heights.

The Labor Department filed suit to overturn the 1988 election, charging that the union constitution and federal law were violated and that ballots of members working on the Panama Canal were suspect.

The department lost a suit four years ago to invalidate the union's 1984 elections.

The Supreme Court ruling, which came shortly before Mr. Brown's election victory was announced, was a legal victory for dissident challengers across the nation.

The decision was based on a 1959 law, the so-called "Landrum-Griffin act," which guarantees the rights of union members to fully participate in elections, including running for office -- a law that the high court said was designed to promote "free and democratic union elections" by helping to offset the advantage that incumbent leaders have over "rank-and-file challengers."

That law, the court said, gives union candidates an "unqualified" right to have their campaign literature sent out by the union at the candidates' expense, and thus the candidates do not have to obey union rules -- such as the time when a candidate may mount a campaign for office. The only test, it said, is whether a candidate's request for the mailing was "reasonable."

"Congress gave this right pertaining to campaign literature a special status that it did not confer upon other rights it granted to union members," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. The right helps "level the playing field" in union elections, the opinion said.

The Labor Department is also suing to remove Mr. Lowen and other officers as trustees of the union's retirement plan, in the wake of losses of more than $20 million because of risky ventures endorsed by trustees and made by a now-bankrupt investment firm.

The union also has lost millions of dollars by investing in a rusty cruise liner it wanted to refloat and operate to create jobs for members. The ship and the union's investment were lost last year when the vessel was sold to satisfy creditors.

"The election showed the basic dissatisfaction with the policies pursued by the old leadership in outside investments," Mr. Brown said. "It also showed that if you steal elections, the members will turn against you."

Mr. Lowen was not immediately available for comment.

A change in leadership is not likely to stem the loss of jobs and the financial pinch experienced by the union, which is also burdened by expenses of maintaining its expansive residential school that has few students and is used increasingly by outside groups.

The union of deck officers, pilots and other merchant marine workers has seen its membership drop over the past decade from 12,000 members to fewer than 7,000. U.S. merchant ships under IOMMP contract have fallen from about 350 to about 125 today.

The shrinking number of U.S.-flag vessels means fewer jobs and lower contributions by employers to fund the school operations and the retirement plans.

Mr. Brown said one of his first moves would be to review a plan approved by the old leaders in September that would allow Mr. Lowen and several other officers to retire with million-dollar buyouts.

The Sea-Land captain said he would work to build bridges with other maritime unions, especially with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association/National Maritime Union, where dissidents recently won a dozen top posts in another re-run election ordered by an arbitrator.

Stopping short of proposing a merger, Mr. Brown said he first wanted to "end the isolation" of the IOMMP from other marine unions and to find a common voice on legislation and bargaining issues.

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