Mutiny on the docks; Seafarers' Union Buffeted By Corruption Charges
On the broad stretch of the Hudson River that flows by lower Manhattan, freighters and tugboats cut graceful swaths toward their berths. Deckhands stroll along the decks and prepare the mooring lines, their voices visible as clouds of steam on this blustery winter morning.Skip to next paragraph
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Only two blocks from the gray docklands, the National Maritime Union (NMU) headquarters appears as a white monolith. Hundreds of windows shaped like portholes dot its sides.
But seamen on the Hudson and leaders of the nation's largest seafarers' union are separated by more than space. The stark contrast between the NMU's carpeted offices overlooking West 17th Street and the rusty decks of an ocean freighter symbolizes a much wider rift. Before the AFL-CIO convention in mid-November, president Lane Kirkland said the growing gap between officers and rank and file is an ''increasing problem.''
Rank-and-filers tell the same story time and again: Union officials don't know what it's like to be a seaman. One seaman puts it graphically: ''Some of them couldn't even tie their shoes aboard a ship.''
Distraught by what they view as corruption and despotism, and spurred by a recent legal victory, small and scattered bands of NMU dissidents have taken up arms against their union's leaders in a battle that could send ripples far beyond the waterfront. When the smoke clears, unions may find themselves sailing toward more democracy and accountability.
It's unusual that seafarers should chart the course toward greater accountability in unions, according to some maritime experts. ''By the very nature of seafaring,'' says maritime historian John Bunker, ''it is not likely for sailors to know what's going on in the union.''
A seaman who spends over half the year sailing around the world visits the union hall infrequently. Since union -patrolmen often come aboard when a ship is docked, a member need not even set foot into the hall to pay his dues. He has little contact with members other than his shipmates (a group that can change as fast as a game of musical chairs), and has scant opportunity to express his beefs, let alone develop an opposition to the official hierarchy.
Like other seafarers' unions, the NMU has no integrated local unions. Members join the national union and ''belong'' to the local halls only when shipping out. Power is more centralized than in many other unions; control is often in a small number of hands.
''It resembles more the one-party system of the Soviet Union,'' comments Arthur Fox, a lawyer for the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington.
But there are signs of shifting winds. A recent federal appeals court decision provides legal ammunition for challenging officers' compensation and expenditures, according to lawyers who have worked with union dissidents.
''The rank and file has the opportunity now to do something about corruption in unions,'' says Arthur McInerney, a lawyer who has represented union dissidents in lawsuits against NMU leaders for the last 12 years. ''But it will be a long, hard struggle.''
The suit was initiated in 1973, when James Morrissey, a retired boatswain and longtime dissident, sued former NMU president Joe Curran and other union officers on several counts, including misuse of pension funds, improper use of vacation pay, and overcompensation of officers. The case was settled six years later, with Curran and others ordered to return nearly $500,000 to union coffers. The officers appealed and the appellate decision reduced the reimbursement to about half that amount.
NMU spokesman Robert Amon claims the decision largely justifies the officers' actions. But while the final opinion changes the dollar amount, the basic principles established in the original District Court decision were upheld, according to lawyers and labor specialists who have followed the case.
Fox says the decision ''sets an important precedent'' in defining part of what is known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, the major piece of labor law regulating the activities of union officers. The statute imposes the same fiduciary responsibility on union leaders that common law imposes on trustees, Fox explains.