Dockworkers Decry Changing Rules

Local 333 fears for livelihood as trustees appointed in N.Y. agree to redrawn duties

December 03, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Theresa Harden can still drive tractors all day, but at 61 years old, the longshoreman has a tough time crawling on her hands and knees in the belly of a cargo ship, a task that port of Baltimore workers do to help secure freight.

"I can't do it," she said recently.

For many years, Harden and other workers who were older, weaker or battered from years on the job relied on their seniority at Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association. Work rules allowed them a day's pay for jobs they could comfortably do.

But many workers say such rules have been eroded in the nearly 18 months since their New York-based union stepped into local affairs, pointing to financial and other irregularities. It has left local workers worried for their jobs and those of their aging colleagues, and for the port where they handle more than 8 million tons of cars, paper, stereos and other goods a year.

Representatives of the port employers and the union's trustees do not deny there have been some small changes involving job descriptions and training in the name of efficiency. They aim to keep work at the port and attract more, and insist that only a few workers are affected.

Several dozen longshoremen, however, said recently that the changes have caused problems for them. And they look forward to elections this month that will return local leadership and, they hope, give them a stronger voice in the port's largest of four unions.

"We need our union back," said Kermit Bowling, a longshoreman for 37 years who is one of three candidates for president of Local 333. "If we use our heads, we can get some of our rights back over time. We don't want a work stoppage or slowdown. We want to negotiate."

The longshoremen haven't always negotiated but say they've learned their lesson. Their infamous inflexibility in the 1980s led to strikes and loss of man-hours. Technology, competition and nonunion terminals took more, reducing the ranks from about 3,000 in the 1970s to about 1,000 today.

There's been relative harmony for years. And port officials and customers often refer to the local longshoremen's efficiency.

Troubles began last year when Local 333 was put in trusteeship by the organization's managing body.

The national group said a past union manager had allowed illegal work stoppages, failed to account for money in a scholarship fund and did not cooperate with the organization's international delegates, among other charges, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Two trustees appointed by New York union officials can stay just 18 months, according to federal law, and many in the rank and file who knew the pair welcomed their temporary intervention. Later, however, they said the trustees did more than return proper procedures. The trustees, critics said, began making changes to appease port managers and cargo lines at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore.

Now workers say the pendulum has swung too far toward the employers.

Union watchers say the situation isn't uncommon today among waterfront workers and other laborers as local union officials try to figure out how much to trade away to preserve jobs.

"The goal is to create a stronger local union," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. "There's disagreement over how to do that. It's bedeviling the labor movement today."

Indeed, James R. Rosenberg, an attorney for the trustees, says they are looking for balance, not trying to undo protections.

He said most workplaces have a small level of discontent and the docks are no different. He believes most of the dockworkers are satisfied with the trustees' work but some just don't like having outsiders in charge.

"It's not surprising or unusual for there to be disenchantment with the trusteeship in general among some rank-and-file members because they didn't elect the trustees," Rosenberg said. "But it's not like no one is coming to the trustees for help."

Trustees hear about 20 to 25 grievances each month that center on everything from random drug tests to wages to work equipment, but not all lead to official action, Rosenberg said. Some are settled easily and some are without merit. The trustees have taken six cases to arbitration with employers, which is the final step in the grievance process. All have been wins for workers, he said.

New York-based union officials and the lead trustee in Baltimore, Horace T. Alston, did not respond to requests for comment.

Micheal Collins, an attorney for the local Steamship Trade Association that represents port employers, said a skilled - and peaceful - work force is necessary to attract and keep business. Disputes, inefficiency and high costs can send shipping lines to other ports.

Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia, one of Baltimore's biggest rivals, recently built a large cargo container facility and is seeking to take work from Baltimore, Collins said.

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