Tug firm crewmen can quit union

NLRB ruling lets hands on Moran Towing vessels end their affiliation

September 18, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that crewmen working for the port of Baltimore's largest tugboat company can end their union affiliation, ending more than 50 years of representation.

The decision released yesterday is likely to end a months-long spat over a proposed labor contract being negotiated between the Seafarers International Union (SIU) and Moran Towing, which has operated in the port since 1917.

Angry over union-negotiated contract provisions that could lead to reduced staffing aboard Moran tugs, the company's mates and deckhands voted Aug. 28 to decertify the union, a move supported by the company. SIU officials immediately filed a complaint accusing the company of unfairly pressuring employees to vote against the union to save jobs.

The NLRB said in its ruling that there was no evidence of unfair labor practices and confirmed the 10-5 vote ending SIU representation. SIU officials can appeal to NLRB officials in Washington, but historically fewer than 10 percent of such appeals get hearings. SIU officials were unavailable to comment yesterday.

For now, Moran employees are negotiating on their own.

"A lot of the guys are pretty scared about what's going to happen without the union and whether the company is going to say, `Well, we can do this to you now and do that,' but I don't think that's going to happen," said Steve Thalheimer, a mate aboard Moran tugs.

In an unusual alliance, unionized deckhands and Moran management took issue with an SIU contract provision that would have allowed the company to reduce staffing on its tugs by one union position. The provision was also contained in a contract between the SIU and McAllister Towing, a rival tug company operating in Baltimore and several East Coast ports.

Moran officials argued that putting fewer crewmen on its tugs would pose a safety hazard in emergency situations.

"We think the [staffing] levels where they are now are where they need to be and where they should be," said Paul P. Swensen, vice president and general manager for Moran Towing in Baltimore.

A Moran tug is usually manned by a captain, who is not an SIU member, a mate, deckhand and engineer. The four take turns keeping watch when the boats are on duty assisting ships. The contract between the SIU and McAllister allows the company to eliminate one of the three union positions.

"We were all afraid somebody was going to get the ax," said Thalheimer, a 10-year employee who voted against the union.

Under the contract, Moran would have had the option of maintaining current staffing levels. But Swensen said the company would have been under pressure to compete with rival companies, who are using smaller crews.

By eliminating union-related pension and welfare expenses, Swensen said, the company can save enough money to keep staffing levels as they are. Instead of a union pension, employees will now have access to a company 401(k) plan. Thalheimer said several union members were dissatisfied with the SIU's pension plan.

In its complaint to the NLRB, the SIU said Moran management pressured employees by saying that jobs would be lost if they voted in favor of the union. The NLRB found no merit to the complaint.

"I found that the conduct complained of would not have affected the results of the election," said Wayne Gold, the NLRB's regional director in Baltimore.

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