Baltimore dockworkers union to be put in trusteeship amid troubles

National officials are taking control of Baltimore's largest dockworkers union.

National labor officials have wrested control of the largest dockworkers union in Baltimore after a year of infighting and accusations that local officers mishandled the union's finances and stacked membership rolls in their favor.

The local union will be placed under temporary trusteeship Monday, according to Jim McNamara, a national spokesman for the International Longshoremen's Association.

The move could have broad implications for the port of Baltimore, one of the state's largest economic engines.

Some observers hope the national office's intervention can help resolve a local contract standoff between the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 and employers at the port. That long-standing dispute has undermined shippers' confidence in Baltimore's workforce, driving some to divert cargo to other cities.

Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and an adviser to the port that's named for her, called the move the "best Thanksgiving present that could be given to both labor and management at the port of Baltimore."

McNamara said an appointed trustee, likely a member of the ILA Executive Council, will take control of the local's operations on Monday and hold a hearing open to Local 333 members in Baltimore on Thursday.

McNamara declined to comment further, including to discuss the reason for appointing a trustee.

National ILA leaders have conducted hearings twice in the past year in Baltimore over accusations from Local 333 members that local officers mishandled the finances and added new members partial to them ahead of union elections next month.

Bentley, also a former chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, said temporary trusteeships usually last 18 months, involve investigations of the local's activities and can result in control remaining with national leaders for the longer term.

Philip Dine, a labor expert and author of "State of the Unions," said trusteeships are often a way for unions to pre-empt investigations by regulators or authorities that some would view as outside interference. Dine said trusteeships are "not all that unusual or all that rare" for unions across the country.

"It's a self-reporting, self-cleansing kind of thing," he said. "As opposed to someone from the outside coming in, unions like to set things right themselves."

Trusteeships range in purpose, from addressing "out-and-out corruption" to streamlining financial practices or ensuring that a local is adhering to bylaws, Dine said.

"Sometimes it's more just a push and shove between the local and the international, and the international gets frustrated and wants to assert control," Dine said.

Infighting within Local 333 served as the backdrop to the financial allegations leveled against President Riker "Rocky" McKenzie last December by former Secretary-Treasurer Daryl Wilburn. An investigation by national union officials found that money was missing from Local 333 accounts and that union debit cards were used for nonunion expenses.

The investigating committee said in an internal report obtained by The Baltimore Sun that it had "uncovered a number of financial practices that could expose the local to investigations by the Department of Labor and perhaps even liability."

The committee, which also was considering a trusteeship at that time, instead ordered an outside audit of the local's finances. The findings of that audit have not been made public.

McKenzie, whose status under the trusteeship is unclear, could not be reached for comment. Wilburn, who continues to work on the docks, declined to comment.

This fall, several members brought new allegations against Local 333 leadership, saying that members were being added to the rolls ahead of next month's elections, upsetting a delicate racial balance in the union.

That balance, they say, has been maintained since a majority-black union and majority-white union merged to form this one during a wave of port desegregation in the 1970s.

National ILA officials have not commented on any findings regarding those allegations.

Other Local 333 leaders and the local's attorney, Jennifer Stair, did not respond to requests for comment.

The port of Baltimore employs more than 14,600 workers and is responsible for $3 billion in personal wages and salaries, according to Maryland Port Administration statistics. One estimate put Local 333 membership at about 1,200, though that was before the allegations of roll stacking.

Bentley said as many as 500 new members have been added to Local 333's rolls "under questionable circumstances." She said the trustee could prevent those new members from taking part in a vote in the next three months on a local contract proposed by shippers.

The disputes at the port first bubbled into public view in October 2013, when members of Local 333 went on strike for three days over the contract dispute, demanding more power to assign jobs on the docks, among other rights.

The port's other ILA locals honored the Local 333 strike and did not cross their picket lines. Work at the port's public terminals came to a standstill — including on container cargo, which is covered under a separate, master contract governing longshoremen from Maine to Texas.

A federal arbitrator ruled that the strike violated the master contract and ordered Local 333 to pay shipping companies about $3.9 million in damages.

That award complicated the local contract negotiations — prompting national ILA officials to step in — and is now the subject of litigation between Local 333 and shipping representatives, including the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore and the United States Maritime Alliance.

Bentley said the turmoil has cost the port business and the longshoremen man-hours. The local's failure to vote on a contract proposal from the Steamship Trade Association, she said, "has created a negative reputation for Baltimore in the global economy."

James White, executive director of the port administration, declined through a spokesman to comment.

Dine, the labor author, said trusteeships can weaken locals placed under their control, but can also help them — especially if a majority of members agree with the need for more oversight.

"If there's widespread agreement that this can prove a positive, and there's a lot of buy-in, then it's more likely to be constructive," Dine said. "The ILA, the international, has a reputation as a cautious but solid union that doesn't act rashly."

krector@baltsun.com

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