Engineers dump union's parent over pension

January 26, 1992|By Michael K. Burns

Mattresses are propped along the walls of the union hall in Little Italy, the bedding piled on chairs, as anxious union members sit inside in a round-the-clock state of siege.

Since the shipboard engineers broke away from their parent union Jan. 16 in a fight centered on control of the $1.2 billion pension fund, they have expected the national union squad to arrive and seize possession of the hall and pension office.

"The scumbags have taken over the halls in Norfolk and Portland," reports Gordon M. Ward, as he listens to the news over the phone of the occupation of division offices in the Virginia and Oregon ports. "We've got to be ready here."

Mr. Ward is the elected chairman of the licensed engineers division of District 1, Marine Engineers Beneficial Association/National Maritime Union -- an uncomfortable 1988 merger of the white-collar engineers and the larger blue-collar seaman's union.

Mr. Ward, an engineer for 30 years, has led his division's members in seceding from the merged District 1 MEBA/NMU, which in turn has stripped him of union authority and placed his unit under trusteeship.

The breakaway was described by C. E. DeFries, the District 1 president, as "a desperate and illegal attempt" by the dissidents and a "threat to the survival of our union."

He insisted that the national union retains authority over contracts with shipping companies, the 23 union hiring halls, membership records and union dues and assets.

But the presidents of five other U.S. maritime unions, the largest being the Seafarers and the Masters, Mates & Pilots, have supported the engineers' declaration of independence.

In an unusual joint statement, these union leaders said they "agree with their decision and stand firmly with them in solidarity."

The major prize in the dispute is the District 1 engineers' $1.2 billion pension plan, which is administered in the same Baltimore building at 1003 Eastern Ave.

So far, the national union has not been able to acquire control of that treasury, or to merge it with the old NMU's deficit-ridden pension fund.

The breakaway engineers also charge in a contested lawsuit that Mr. DeFries and other top officers of District 1 MEBA raided the treasury for $2 million in severance pay the day before they reassumed their same jobs, at the same six-figure salaries, in the merged entity.

Mr. Ward's supporters also accuse MEBA leaders of taking lavish pension buyouts from the old unions, although working for the merged union. A spokesman for Mr. DeFries said the pension buyouts were authorized by the union and were legal.

Entangled in a web of federal court suits over the merger, the breakaway engineers voted 823-46 at nine port membership meetings last week to dissolve the union with the NMU. The break followed the refusal of a federal judge in New York to void the merger in December; instead, the jurist approved a referendum on the issue that is tentatively set for March.

Maneuvers

That prompted a series of organizational maneuvers by each side to bolster its respective position for the mail vote, the ballots for which were to be sent out yesterday.

After the secession vote, Mr. DeFries and his allies reduced to a minority the voting strength of the licensed engineers by creating new divisions and establishing new voting rules. They also have barred the engineers-division officers from access to their records in MEBA's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Mr. Ward and his group scored a major victory a year ago in capturing leadership posts within the licensed division, with enough delegates to assure victory at this year's convention, before this month's rules changes.

Mr. DeFries resigned as division chairman just before that January 1991 election, but retained the national MEBA president's job and the overall District 1 presidency.

The District 1 and NMU merger -- one of several effected or discussed as employment plummets in the U.S. shipping industry -- apparently was designed to cover the pension deficit of the NMU with the District 1 MEBA fund's surplus, while adding 20,000 members to the smaller engineers union.

MEBA members, in exchange, say they were guaranteed the top offices in the new District 1 MEBA/NMU and were told that the integrated union would be able to get more shipping contracts.

Opposition to merger

While most of the opposition to the merger came from MEBA, some NMU members also are challenging the action.

Seaman Albert Jackson complained to the Labor Department that the merger was designed to avoid an open election of NMU division officers; the government forced NMU to hold that election, whose conduct is the subject of further litigation.

Members have filed numerous complaints of wrongdoing by officials with the Labor Department and the FBI, which are investigating. A Washington grand jury has looked into the union's activities. No federal court actions have been filed, however.

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