Longshore union accused of stacking rolls ahead of vote, as negotiations continue

The International Longshoremen's Association is investigating the largest dockworker union at the port of Baltimore over racially tinged allegations that local leaders stacked its membership in advance of coming local elections.

Two members of the ILA executive council convened meetings in Baltimore this week to investigate the grievances filed by members of Baltimore's Local 333, confirmed Jim McNamara, a national ILA spokesman.

The hearings occurred as two senior ILA officials, including Atlantic Coast District President Dennis Daggett, met in Baltimore this week with representatives of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore and the United States Maritime Association, or USMX, to continue local contract negotiations for Local 333. The two associations represent port shippers that employ ILA labor.

While Local 333 is party to a coastwide ILA master contract that covers container shipments, it lacks a local contract for automobiles and other break bulk cargo, and even went on strike for three days last fall over the issue. The local now owes shippers nearly $4 million in damages after an arbitrator ruled strikes are prohibited by the master contract.

McNamara said "progress was made on key issues" in the contract negotiations but that no new agreement had been reached. He declined to elaborate. Officials with Steamship Trade and USMX did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue of the membership investigation was not broached as part of the contract discussion, McNamara said.

Ronald Barkhorn was one of the Local 333 members who complained about new members being added to the union. He said Friday that the grievances stem from a desire among hundreds of Local 333 members to "restore democracy" in the union amid the contentious local contract negotiations.

Barkhorn, who has also complained to the National Labor Relations Board, said workers have asked the local's executive board "not to take on new members until we get these issues taken care of down here."

After this week's hearings, Barkhorn wrote in a memo to Local 333 members that "flooding the Local with unneeded members will cause dissension, anger and drastically reduce the wages of many lower seniority current members."

The hearings follow others this year in which a similar ILA committee considered seizing control of Local 333 from its elected officials after an investigation revealed missing money and questionable financial practices in the local. Recommendations were made to improve the local's finances, but control was never wrested away from Local 333 President Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, who is up for re-election in December.

Barkhorn, who is white, said he fears union leaders already have brought on numerous members favorable to them ahead of the December vote. He worries that will lead to the dissolution of a long-standing policy of racial parity in Local 333 membership, which, he said, has existed since Local 333 was formed by the merger of a majority-black local and a majority-white local amid a wave of port desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.

McKenzie, who is black, said Local 333 has advertised union membership throughout the wider Baltimore region since 2012 in order to meet labor demand from port customers, and that union rules require the local to accept applications from all new members if it lacks just cause to deny them.

He said he couldn't say how many new members have been added to Local 333 rolls recently but dismissed claims of race-based maneuvering for power and scoffed at the idea of providing a racial breakdown of new members.

"I'm not at liberty to even discuss that because, on its face, it's discriminatory," he said. "You can't put race as a means [for deciding] how you're going to bring people into union membership."

The investigative committee came to Baltimore "to make sure that the ILA constitution was being enforced and that the actions are in compliance with the ILA constitution," McKenzie said, but the race issues are only being raised by "people going around the pier trying to divide the local on this issue."

Barkhorn, 52, insisted he's trying to support good race relations in the local. A dockworker since 1979 and a Local 333 member since 1981, he said he's worked on a majority-black crew for the past 16 years and hopes his raising concerns will help all members continue to "work together and be brothers."

It's not just that many members of the local blame McKenzie for the strike and don't think they should be liable for the $4 million in damages, Barkhorn said. There's also been no transparency about new members being brought in, or whether the racial makeup of new membership will serve to maintain or disrupt racial equality when it comes to securing work on the docks, he said.

The former majority-black Local 858 and its mostly white counterpart, Local 829, had near equal membership when they were forced to integrate and become Local 333 after losing a federal court battle with the Justice Department in the early 1970s. At the time, attorneys for the locals argued in an appeal of the merger that it could result in future racial disparity if members of one race were able to outnumber members of the other, but the courts upheld the merger, citing seniority as the only proper standard for distributing jobs.

While Barkhorn said Local 333 has maintained racial parity in the membership since the merger, he fears recent efforts to pull in a tide of new members are undermining the tradition.

"We've all gotten along," he said of dockworkers of different races in recent years. "But it might not be that way if things continue to go where they're going."

The committee investigating the complaints collected testimony and other information in the case, and will present those findings to the ILA's executive council, McNamara said. Neither the committee members nor the ILA would otherwise comment on the case, he said.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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