Marine union vote hits troubled waters


The long-standing internal political battles of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union ended up in Baltimore federal court again yesterday, as newly elected officers scrapped with the old guard over the validity of a membership referendum that ends today.

"That's the normal course of events," U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis remarked as he listened to arguments from lawyers for the union's General Executive Board. They sought to halt the counting tomorrow of ballots from a referendum of the Linthicum Heights-based merchant marine officers union.

The judge decided to impound the ballots and have them counted laterin secret by a designee of Lane Kirkland, national president of the AFL-CIO labor federation. The results will be disclosed only by court order.

The new president and secretary-treasurer, elected this year when Judge Garbis ordered another election after finding fraudulent balloting in a 1988 vote, called the referendum in hopes of sustaining their authority against the board and Robert T. Lowen, who served more than 12 years as president.

President Timothy A. Brown and Secretary-Treasurer James T. Hopkins claim that after they won the election, the board created a "shadow president" job for Mr. Lowen.

As membership group liaison officer, Mr. Lowen receives a salary and benefits equal to the president and is responsible only to the board, Mr. Brown and Mr. Hopkins said. They also said that the board has appointed staff members traditionally named by the president. In addition, they contend, the board has backed the election of Mr. Lowen as chairman of the trustees of the union's benefit plans -- a job typically held by the union's president -- despite Mr. Lowen's alleged implication in heavy losses in the retirement fund.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Lowen agreed to resign from any position on pension or retirement plans to settle suits brought by the Labor Department and dissident union members. The suits were prompted by the loss of more than $30 million in union trust funds through unsound investments.

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