The port of Baltimore's largest longshoremen's union elected a slate of longtime members this week to leadership positions, a move that will mark the end of a sometimes fractious year-and-a-half under outside control.
It was one of the highest turnouts ever for Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, with about 700 of the 1,000 members voting late Monday. They chose 37-year waterfront veteran Kermit Bowling as president. Also elected were John Blom and Ronald Barkhorn, each with 25 years or more in the local union, as vice president and walking delegate respectively.
Local 333 had been under the trusteeship of its New York-based international union after officials accused a local leader of fiscal mismanagement and rule breaking. But rank-and-file workers complain that the trustees didn't just return order, they went too far in making concessions to employers at the port. That kept some workers with seniority from getting steady jobs on the docks, union members said.
The employers, represented by the Steamship Trade Association, have said small changes were made to improve efficiency and lure and retain business in the highly competitive shipping industry.
Yesterday, Bowling, 68, said the longshoremen want the public terminals to be successful because that means more work for them - and port administrators and customers have often called them efficient. But the longshoremen want to be treated fairly for their labor, he said.
The public terminals handle 8 million tons of cargo a year. Longshoremen load and unload ships of cars, tractors, paper and containers with everything from stereos to clothes and toys. There are three other local longshoremen's union locals in addition to Local 333, with a total of about 1,600 workers.
"Naturally, we're very optimistic right now," said Bowling, who will take over next month. "We'll set an agenda and go from there. ... I think most people feel the way I do."
Bowling said the first order of business is restoring a work rule that allows more-senior longshoremen to have a choice of jobs.
During the trusteeship, the rule was changed to allow employers to request only a number of longshoremen from the hiring hall to fill daily jobs. That meant some older workers or workers with injuries would show up at the terminals and find they couldn't perform the task.
Because the average age of active members of Local 333 is close to 50, and many suffer from years of heavy lifting on the waterfront, the change was becoming a big issue, longshoremen said.
Bowling is well-known from his time on the docks, as well as from stints in positions such as vice president of Local 333. He says he is well versed in the contract terms, but not hot-tempered - a philosophy of "using your head," as he puts it.
"The other ILA locals in the port know Mr. Bowling as experienced, capable and savvy and they look forward to working together with him for the good of the membership as a whole," said James R. Rosenberg, a union attorney representing the Local 333 trustees.
An attorney for the Steamship Trade Association could not be reached for comment.
Barkhorn, who will be the walking delegate, said many issues workers have with management could be handled easily on the docks and on the spot. That will be his job.
"Local representation will make a huge difference," he said. "We all want a business-friendly environment and to bring new work opportunities. ... We're all open to talking to each other. I think we're all on the same page."