The trustee charged with restoring order to Baltimore's largest dockworkers union has sent letters informing an unknown number of people recently admitted to the local that their memberships are not valid.
The International Longshoremen's Association placed its Local 333, which engaged in a three-day port strike in October 2013, under trusteeship late last year after several internal complaints arose about infighting and alleged improprieties by local officials, including that they had been stacking the union's rolls ahead of elections.
"I am writing to explain that you are not a member of Local 333 and that you will receive a refund of any initiation fees or dues that you paid to Local 333," wrote trustee Wilbert Rowell in one of the letters obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The apparent purging of the local's rolls comes at a pivotal moment for the port. It follows last month's vote in which the union's members rejected a local labor contract seen as critical to ending the labor strife that has roiled the port since the strike. The latest contract offer, tentatively agreed to by national ILA officials — including Rowell — and employer representatives at the port of Baltimore, would have allayed shippers' fears of further instability and shored up the port's long-term ability to attract business to Maryland.
The Maryland Port Administration attributes more than 14,600 jobs and $3 billion in personal wages and salaries in the state to the port. Membership in a dockworkers union, which some who received the letter had been pursuing for years, is considered one of the few surviving paths toward a comfortable blue-collar life in Baltimore.
Jeff Worley, 34, of Dundalk thought he was on that path.
Employed as a nonunion crane operator at a private terminal in the port, Worley said he has seen friends in the union earn higher wages and live a "better family life" than nonunion workers. So in September, when he paid nearly $2,200 in fees and dues and was sworn into Local 333, he thought things were looking up, he said.
Then Rowell's letter arrived, informing him he would be issued a refund rather than placed into a union work rotation, he said.
"I'm sitting here like, 'Hold on,'" Worley said. "I don't know what happened. I just think there's going to be a lot of people who got the raw end of the deal here."
Jim McNamara, a national ILA spokesman, said no one from the ILA, including Rowell, would comment on the letter or say how many people received it.
It could have been dozens and possibly more than 100 people. Local 333 reported having 1,064 general members in 2013 in its latest filing with the U.S. Labor Department. But that count came before the allegations of stacking, and officials have more recently put the number closer to 1,200.
The complaints about new members being brought into the local were raised in part by Ronald Barkhorn, a longtime Local 333 member. Barkhorn wrote in a September memo to ILA officials — also obtained by The Sun — that "flooding the Local with unneeded members will cause dissension, anger and drastically reduce the wages of many lower seniority current members."
Barkhorn alleged new members were being brought in without accounting for a racial balance between white and black members that has been in place since Local 333 was formed from an all-white union and an all-black union amid a wave of desegregation efforts at U.S. ports in the 1960s and 1970s.
Officials for the local dismissed Barkhorn's claims as unfounded at the time.
The recent letter notifying of invalid memberships was headed with a generic greeting — "Dear Sir/Madam" — and advised recipients to report to the union's Locust Point offices for refunds over the course of three days this week, based on where in the alphabet their last names appear.
"I called some mutual friends who I grew up with and went to high school with [and who also recently joined Local 333], and everybody's gotten it," Worley said of Rowell's letter. "I would imagine this was a mass-produced letter."
New union members generally sign waivers upon being sworn into the local acknowledging they will not receive a refund of any fees or dues paid, but Rowell's letter notes the local "does not intend to enforce that waiver."
James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said he was not aware of the letter until he was asked about it by The Sun. He said he was aware of the allegations that the union's rolls had been stacked.
"We heard that they brought members in, a lot of members," White said. "We certainly don't need that many."
It's unclear whether the local's decision to purge recently admitted members will have any affect on the labor negotiations.
Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and current adviser to the port administration, said Local 333 members and port employers are at odds over several issues, including how to pay two longshoremen who split a single shift on the docks.
An even greater sticking point in the talks has been a $3.9 million award that a federal arbitrator ordered Local 333 to pay to shippers for damages sustained during the 2013 strike. The arbitrator ruled Local 333's work stoppage had violated a "no-strike" provision in a separate master contract governing container cargo from Maine to Texas.
Shipping representatives sued Local 333 for the money even as contract negotiations have proceeded and continue to threaten to enforce the judgment.
The latest local contract offer, which court documents show Local 333 members voted down 442-172, included provisions for the arbitrator's award to be forgiven if the longshoremen don't strike again for the remainder of the master contract, which covers the handling of containerized cargo and expires in 2018.
White said he believes incorrect versions of the local agreement were circulated among Local 333 members before the vote, which contributed to the contract being voted down. He also said he believes shipping representatives and ILA leaders are considering reintroducing the agreement for another vote, after doing more groundwork to properly inform members of its provisions.
The fact that Baltimore's largest ILA local still lacks a local contract makes it a distracting anomaly among East Coast and Gulf Coast ports. The local contract covers work rules and noncontainerized cargoes such as automobiles, which makes it particularly important in Baltimore, the nation's largest port for cars and light trucks.
Even as the dispute festers, national officials at the ILA and at the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents major shippers on the coast, already have begun discussing the possibility of negotiating a new long-term master contract — even though the current deal doesn't expire until 2018.
Recent unrest and work stoppages on the West Coast, only recently settled with a new labor contract there, increased national attention on the importance of maintaining port operations for the national economy.
McNamara said the ILA is willing to listen, but emphasized any long-term agreement would have to "address concerns ILA continues to have about automation, outsourcing of work, health care, local negotiations and several other items."
While David Adam, the Maritime Alliance's chairman and CEO, did not address specifics, he said a long-term agreement "would provide stability to the industry and security for the workforce."
But that's no comfort for workers like Worley who thought they'd finally made it into the ILA but now may find themselves still outside the union.
He's unsure whether he should accept the refund or wait for more information. He said he doesn't understand how the union could acknowledge receipt of initiation fees and dues yet say he was never a member in the same breath.
He also wonders how much money the union took from would-be members — and how much interest it earned on that money — before turning around and telling them they never had a shot.
"I'll wait my turn, but now you're telling me there is absolutely nothing [in the works]? That's crazy," he said. "There's no one to talk to."