Theresa Harden can still drive tractors all day, but at 61 years old, the longshoreman has a tough time crawling on her hands and knees in the belly of a cargo ship, a task that port of Baltimore workers do to help secure freight.
"I can't do it," she said recently.
For many years, Harden and other workers who were older, weaker or battered from years on the job relied on their seniority at Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association. Work rules allowed them a day's pay for jobs they could comfortably do.
But many workers say such rules have been eroded in the nearly 18 months since their New York-based union stepped into local affairs, pointing to financial and other irregularities. It has left local workers worried for their jobs and those of their aging colleagues, and for the port where they handle more than 8 million tons of cars, paper, stereos and other goods a year.
Representatives of the port employers and the union's trustees do not deny there have been some small changes involving job descriptions and training in the name of efficiency. They aim to keep work at the port and attract more, and insist that only a few workers are affected.
Several dozen longshoremen, however, said recently that the changes have caused problems for them. And they look forward to elections this month that will return local leadership and, they hope, give them a stronger voice in the port's largest of four unions.
"We need our union back," said Kermit Bowling, a longshoreman for 37 years who is one of three candidates for president of Local 333. "If we use our heads, we can get some of our rights back over time. We don't want a work stoppage or slowdown. We want to negotiate."
The longshoremen haven't always negotiated but say they've learned their lesson. Their infamous inflexibility in the 1980s led to strikes and loss of man-hours. Technology, competition and nonunion terminals took more, reducing the ranks from about 3,000 in the 1970s to about 1,000 today.
There's been relative harmony for years. And port officials and customers often refer to the local longshoremen's efficiency.
Troubles began last year when Local 333 was put in trusteeship by the organization's managing body.
The national group said a past union manager had allowed illegal work stoppages, failed to account for money in a scholarship fund and did not cooperate with the organization's international delegates, among other charges, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Two trustees appointed by New York union officials can stay just 18 months, according to federal law, and many in the rank and file who knew the pair welcomed their temporary intervention. Later, however, they said the trustees did more than return proper procedures. The trustees, critics said, began making changes to appease port managers and cargo lines at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore.
Now workers say the pendulum has swung too far toward the employers.
Union watchers say the situation isn't uncommon today among waterfront workers and other laborers as local union officials try to figure out how much to trade away to preserve jobs.
"The goal is to create a stronger local union," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. "There's disagreement over how to do that. It's bedeviling the labor movement today."
Indeed, James R. Rosenberg, an attorney for the trustees, says they are looking for balance, not trying to undo protections.
He said most workplaces have a small level of discontent and the docks are no different. He believes most of the dockworkers are satisfied with the trustees' work but some just don't like having outsiders in charge.
"It's not surprising or unusual for there to be disenchantment with the trusteeship in general among some rank-and-file members because they didn't elect the trustees," Rosenberg said. "But it's not like no one is coming to the trustees for help."
Trustees hear about 20 to 25 grievances each month that center on everything from random drug tests to wages to work equipment, but not all lead to official action, Rosenberg said. Some are settled easily and some are without merit. The trustees have taken six cases to arbitration with employers, which is the final step in the grievance process. All have been wins for workers, he said.
New York-based union officials and the lead trustee in Baltimore, Horace T. Alston, did not respond to requests for comment.
Micheal Collins, an attorney for the local Steamship Trade Association that represents port employers, said a skilled - and peaceful - work force is necessary to attract and keep business. Disputes, inefficiency and high costs can send shipping lines to other ports.
Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia, one of Baltimore's biggest rivals, recently built a large cargo container facility and is seeking to take work from Baltimore, Collins said.
"We have to give them [shippers] value," he said. "At the end of the day, I think we do. And our relationship is sound. [Union] men and women do a heck of a job. But at the end of the day, we need to stay competitive."
He and workers say that among the biggest rule changes made by the Steamship Trade Association is one that redefines everyone as a "longshoreman," rather than specifically as a driver, crane operator or lasher who secures cargo. So when employers go to the hiring hall looking for workers, they give only a number, not a description of each position. Workers go to the docks based on seniority.
Collins said that gives the employers flexibility and affects only a minority of longshoremen who get regular work from the hiring hall, a cavernous room near the port where workers gather every morning for the day's assignments. Most are assigned to permanent "gangs" working for particular cargo lines or port managers.
Longshoremen say many pick up extra hours of work in other jobs because they don't get enough from their regular shift, so the rule change has widespread effects. They're refusing dock assignments when it becomes clear they can't do work such as lifting heavy cargo or crawling around on their knees. That opens the position to the next-senior worker.
According to Bowling, the longshoreman, there probably are 50 men past the usual retirement age, 50 women and maybe 50 more with injuries or disabilities who have been adversely affected. More could be affected over time. The average age of active Local 333 members is close to 50.
Employers naturally would want to hire younger workers, said Bowling, who is 68. They generally are on a lower pay scale of $16 to $18 an hour. Older ones normally earn $21 to $30.
"But I was raised to believe that's what the union was for, to protect you over time," he said. "I don't know exactly how often there is a problem, but just the other day they assigned me something I couldn't do. I said I was going home, and someone else said he'd do it for me unofficially. It was embarrassing for me, but I got paid."
Bowling started a legal fund with other longshoremen and contacted a lawyer to help fight the rule changes that they say are also creeping into areas such as training, pay and drug testing.
Kenneth Sprang, the longshoremen's attorney, said many of the issues are with the employers but also with the trustees for not taking up the workers' causes.
"In nearly 30 years of practicing, teaching, and writing about labor law, I've never seen anything quite like this," he said.
"I have had a steady stream of complaints by numerous people about a variety of infractions by both the [employers] and Local 333," he said. "In a large organization like the union, there will always be some people who are going to complain about everything. Some gripes are legitimate and some are not. But here there seem to be many cases of abuse, incompetence or neglect."
Sprang said normal grievance procedures have failed to win concessions for workers. He has filed three lawsuits in Maryland District Court against the employers, and the union and plans a fourth. He also has filed three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
In each case, Sprang said, rules were changed midstream and without the rank and file's vote. Workers were discriminated against based on race, their seniority was ignored or workers were threatened with discipline or docked pay for participating in union activities, he said.
The trustees' lawyer said that in some instances longshoremen did not seek the union's help or their grievance wasn't considered valid, and in other cases they are prepared to aid the workers. The employer group's attorney said none of the rule changes was unlawful and no one has been unfairly disciplined. None of the cases will be heard until after the trustees are gone, expected in the new year. That has frustrated some of the workers.
Victor Able, a longshoreman for 32 years, said wear and tear on his knees means he can't do some of the more strenuous work strapping down or lifting heavier cargo at the port.
He has a permanent assignment handling paper imports, but needs to get extra work at the hiring hall to make ends meet. Even his seniority can't guarantee him his choice of jobs.
He participated in an informal picket in his off hours to protest the rule changes and received a letter he says threatened him with discipline. (The employers say it was not a threat but part of an investigation into whether workers were inciting an illegal work stoppage. The matter is the subject of one of the federal labor board complaints.)
Able decided to run for walking delegate in this month's elections, a position on the docks where he can ensure that longshoremen are working hard and acting professionally and are treated well in return. "I can't do it anymore," he said of some work he's been given. "I used to be able to drive cars, but with new rules, I have no choice in the matter. I'm disabled, but not of my own choosing, it's from my work here. It doesn't seem fair."