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Longshoremen ranks split as labor dispute rages on

Discord has erupted within the longshoremen's union at the heart of the labor dispute at the port of Baltimore, with some members calling for an end to the union's standoff with port employers and others promising to push on.

The dissension is growing as the standoff begins to affect trade. Some customers have diverted cargo, fearing a second labor disruption in four months, a development some longshoreman believe portends more trouble for the business they depend on for survival.

Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, president of the local union, said port employers have wrested critical controls from the union over how its workforce is tapped for jobs and should return them. But several people pointed to McKenzie as the roadblock.

"We've had a problem, we have been trying to get rid of it, and it is our president," said Victor Able, a 57-year-old union member and a longshoreman in Baltimore since 1974. "The president is basically acting like a dictator."

For months, McKenzie and other leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 have been in extended negotiations over a local contract with the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents port employers.

The negotiations broke down in October, when Local 333 went on strike, paralyzing the port's public terminals and idling workers in other fields — truckers, ship crew members, cargo processors — who rely on cargo coming off ships to do their jobs.

A federal arbitrator ruled the strike invalid because it disrupted shipments of cargo containers that are covered under a separate master contract with a no-strike clause that covers the entire East Coast. The disputed local contract covers such cargo as automobiles and forest products just in the port of Baltimore.

The two sides agreed to a 90-day cooling-off period after the ruling that ended the strike.

That period ended Friday without a contract. The association said it would not lock out workers, and Local 333 said it would not strike again. But a path to reconciliation, and a new contract, remains elusive.

McKenzie and Jim McNamara, an ILA spokesman, said Dennis Daggett, president of the ILA's Atlantic Coast District — not ILA President Harold Daggett, as previously reported — will soon begin assisting McKenzie in talks.

On Thursday, Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said the latest contract proposed by employers is the "best and final" offer. Calling wages under the contract "unprecedented" — with higher starting wages and regular raises as longshoremen gain experience — he said negotiations are over.

That night, Local 333 members packed a union hall in Locust Point. Some outside expressed frustration after hearing leaders say no vote would be taken.

"What a waste of a meeting," one longshoreman said.

Able attended the meeting and said at one point several members pushed for a vote on the contract, believing it would be approved by those in the room.

McKenzie immediately called the meeting "out of order" and refused to hold a vote, Able said — a move he called "ludicrous."

"This is not how a union is supposed to be run," said Able, a former Local 333 official. "We have no democracy."

Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman and an adviser to the Maryland Port Administration who has closely watched port negotiations for years and was briefed on the meeting, said the situation has gotten out of hand.

"His men were calling for a vote," she said. "If Rocky really cared about his men, he would not keep them dangling out here with the possibility of a work stoppage taking place at any time."

McKenzie disputed Able's account of the meeting.

"The majority of the membership at the meeting said they didn't want to [vote] because it was a bad contract," he said. "Were there a few in there who wanted to? Yes."

McKenzie said a vote would have broken union rules, in part because the proposed contract had not been approved by the union's authorized negotiators before going to the members. A vote also requires that a copy of the proposed contract be mailed to the membership and that a full day be scheduled for voting, he said.

"You cannot have a group of individuals vote on a contract when your entire membership were not given due notice to take that vote," he said.

McKenzie also described in detail Friday, for the first time, his concerns about the proposed contract, which he said retains workforce rules that undermine the union's ability to deploy its members in the most efficient and beneficial way.

"We didn't want to try to air our laundry out in the public. We wanted to try to have a sensible and reasonable negotiation process with management," McKenzie said. "But people are not understanding the sacrifices we have to go through on a daily basis just to get a job."

A longshoreman's job isn't 9-to-5, he said. On any given day, hundreds of men and women show up at a dispatch center hoping to land a shift working a ship at the port. Some weeks, a worker might secure only a few days of work. Some days, only four hours of work are guaranteed.

Controlling who gets to work, on what jobs and under what conditions — not wages — are the sticking points, he said.

The expired contract, under which Local 333 members are now working, includes a policy that allows employers to restrict work to those longshoremen who can pass a driving test on the heavy machinery used to unload cargo, even though some jobs don't require driving, McKenzie said.

The union wants workers to be eligible for those other jobs without passing the driving test, McKenzie said. Some members who failed the test, which is administered by management, have been left without work.

The union also wants workers facing disciplinary action to be able to remain on the job while their case is reviewed, McKenzie said. It also wants to allow senior members to be able to pick jobs that might better suit their abilities.

Able called such issues "housekeeping" matters that were shaped as much by the national ILA as by employers.

The proposed contract is "something that we can live with and move forward," he said. "We're losing work here in the port of Baltimore."

The contract allows for six months to settle such housekeeping matters. McKenzie called them "mandatory subjects of bargaining" and said he worries the union's negotiating power dries up once the contract is approved.

"Management is trying to do the same thing they've been trying to do to us for 20-plus years," he said. "They're trying to push a vote."

Management isn't alone, Able and others said.

"We've lost a couple ships already, and that means losing man-hours for the longshoremen," Bentley said. "That means money to take home is lost, and unfortunately, many times when cargo is diverted, it never returns."

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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