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Baltimore longshoremen elect new leaders to retake control of union from international trustee

Baltimore's largest dockworkers union has elected new leaders to retake control of the local from an internati

More than 18 months after the International Longshoremen's Association seized control of its largest Baltimore local, the union is poised to end its strict oversight of Local 333 after the local elected new leaders last week.

The ILA imposed a trusteeship on Local 333 in December 2014 amid acrimonious contract talks with the employers of the workers who load and unload ships in the port of Baltimore. It came after a year of infighting and accusations that local officers mishandled the union's finances and stacked membership rolls in their favor.

In a secret ballot election Thursday, ILA Local 333 members voted to make Scott Cowan its new president. He and four other new officers will be installed July 5.

Reached Monday, Cowan said he was at work on the docks and couldn't comment.

The installation of new leaders concludes a long and turbulent chapter for labor relations at the port of Baltimore that included a disruptive and costly three-day strike in the fall of 2013 and a lawsuit by some of the dockworkers against their union.

While under the control of the international union, the local saw its membership rolls purged of about 500 members deemed to have been not valid by the union trustee, Wilbert Rowell. He also ushered in a new labor contract after an 18-month standoff between the dockworkers and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents shipping companies and other employers of ILA labor.

The labor contract, which covers dockworkers' benefits and the shipping of automobiles and other noncontainerized cargo, was ratified by the membership in March 2015 and is valid through Sept. 30, 2018.

"Many issues were addressed that will pave the way for the future success of the Port of Baltimore," said Jim McNamara, a spokesman of the New York-based international union, in a statement.

The local union's former president, Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, former recording secretary Ezekiel Givens and more than 80 people purged from Local 333 sued the national union and the trade association the week before the vote, claiming they'd been removed to force the contract through. In October, a federal judge ruled against the plaintiffs, dismissing the case.

McKenzie, a rival of Cowan's, ran against him in last week's election and lost by 77 votes, 382-305.

Baltimore's public terminals lead North America in autos and roll-on/roll-off cargo and remain among the most productive in the U.S. in container shipping, McNamara said. In another sign of added stability, the world's largest container shipping company, Maersk Lines, returned to Baltimore in 2015 for the first time in 25 years, he said.

"The trustee and members of Local 333 who assisted him during the trusteeship have worked diligently to foster a productive labor management relationship to ensure labor peace and economic stability in order to retain and attract new work to the port of Baltimore," McNamara said.

The election and end of the trusteeship is "very good news for the port of Baltimore," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.

"We're encouraged that ILA's Local 333 completed a successful election last week that will return the leadership of the port's largest local back into the hands of local leadership," Scher said. "Our longshoremen and -women are keys to the overall success to the port of Baltimore and they remain a very productive workforce."

The maritime industry is fickle, and if international customers had gotten skittish over the port's labor disputes, it could have meant major losses for Baltimore, Scher said.

"We were fortunate," he said. "The work stoppage was a very brief work stoppage. If that had gone on for an extended period of time, we would've had more negative repercussions than we did."

"We're happy to move forward under the new leadership," Scher said.

In addition to Cowan, Michael Coe was elected vice president; Julie Mitchell was elected secretary/treasurer; Wendell Shannon was elected recording secretary; and Michael Lewis was elected walking delegate.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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