ILA official accuses port management of racial bias

April 05, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, the vice president of the largest longshoremen's local in Baltimore, says he will no longer participate in efforts to promote the port because of what he sees as racial bias by management in work assignments.

Because of declining cargo levels in the port, there is not enough work for all of the approximately 1,250 cargo handlers who belong to Mr. McKenzie's unit, ILA Local 333. Work is usually assigned by gang, the basic unit of organization on the waterfront.

In an interview in his office last week and again during a telephone conversation yesterday, Mr. McKenzie alleged that management, in parceling out what little work is available, has unfairly favored predominantly white gangs over black ones.

"The majority of people being hurt are in the black gangs," he said.

Perhaps 55 percent of Local 333's members are whites. Of the 13 gangs that have received very little work in the past six months, 10 are predominantly black, according to Mr. McKenzie.

He maintained that management was deliberately discriminating against the black gangs. "It's not an accident," he said. "The employers are using this tactic to keep us divided."

Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represents employers in the port, denied the allegations of racial bias.

He said that the issue was simply a matter of not enough work to go around. "I don't think there's any racial connotation to any of this," he said. "I wish there were more manhours to spread around. That would cure a lot of ills in this port."

Mr. McKenzie said that he would no longer go along with the MarylandPort Administration officials and representatives of management to sell the port to shippers and steamship lines "until they show they've got some intention of doing right by the membership."

While other ILA officials share Mr. McKenzie's concern about the distribution of work, they have not cast the issue in racial terms, nor have they refused to continue to cooperate in efforts to promote the port.

Edward Burke, president of Local 333, said he believes management is in violation of the contract by refusing to spread out the work among more gangs and that both black and white longshoremen are being hurt as a result.

"It's unfair no matter what color you are," he said.

Local 333 has filed a grievance on the issue of work distribution. Thatgrievance will be submitted to binding arbitration.

Hours worked are a crucial issue because they determine a longshoreman's eligibility for benefit programs. A key threshold is 200 hours, the number a longshoreman must work in a year to qualify for the guaranteed annual income program. Failure to reach that level can cost a longshoremen over $20,000 a year in GAI benefits.

Mr. McKenzie, expressing frustration over his inability to get management officials to take steps to even out distribution of the work, said he had very reluctantly decided to make his criticism public.

"I don't want to do anything intentional to hurt the port," he said. But he finally decided his obligations to his members required some kind of response. "I waited too damn long to he honest with you," he said.

So far other ILA officials have not elected to join Mr. McKenzie's boycott of the joint marketing effort.

Horace Alston, the highest-ranking official of the ILA in Baltimore, said that he participated in a marketing trip in February and was ready to take part in another one soon. "We're trying to show people we in Baltimore do not have the bad image they think we do," he said.

Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said of the joint marketing program, "Those efforts are important to convey unity in the port."

He voiced the hope that union officials, including Mr. McKenzie, will continue to participate.

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