ILA ranks split as contract dispute drags on

Dundalk, MD -- 01/16//2014 -- Workers participate in loading the container ship Bahri Tabuk at the Port of Baltimore Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) [] (_DSC3190.JPG)] (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun / January 16, 2014)

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."