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Mutiny on the docks; Seafarers' Union Buffeted By Corruption Charges

(Page 3 of 4)

''This is the whole fraud,'' says Jackson. ''I added up all the port costs in 1979, and they (the union officials) are losing money in Panama. All they are doing is vote-buying.''

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The union also has about 500 members in Puerto Rico who work in small manufacturing companies. Unlike most unions that branch out to represent workers in other industries, the NMU has not set up autonomous ''locals.''

''It is a national union . . . they all have the same union book, the same constitution, the same delegates at the convention,'' says Shannon Wall, who took over as NMU president when Joe Curran retired in 1973. He says there is ''no problem whatsoever'' with shoreside workers in Panama and Puerto Rico not being acquainted with the particular problems and interests of seagoing members.

Wall says that while ''we can romanticize all we want about the past,'' he doesn't feel that the NMU is any less democratic now than it used to be.

''If you judge democracy by having elections every year, instead of every five years,'' he argues, ''if you judge it by every time a patrolman or an agent quits . . . that you must go to an election to fill that spot rather than selecting someone, you can change democracy to anarchy.''

''Just because something is successful doesn't make it wrong,''

Wall says. ''If the opposition cannot put together a united slate, that's their problem.''Wall describes the shipping industry as ''complicated. . . . It is more difficult for the member (to understand the total picture) when not all the issues are 'pork chops' - wages, hours, and working conditions - when . . . the struggles are for increased pension plans, increased welfare plans, more vacations.''

He says a lot of the issues officials deal with are ''not important to young people in the union. There can be some separation between the work of the officials and the rank-and-file member by the very issues that are left facing us.''

Many find this attitude insulting.

''What made Shannon Wall so smart all of a sudden?'' asks the retired official. ''There's a lot of ability out there,'' he says, referring to potential leaders among the young rank-and-file seamen. It takes ''no genius,'' he says, to understand that jobs are becoming scarcer and the seaman's future is not all that secure.

''My biggest concern is that jobs are just disappearing,'' says a young union dissident. ''Talking about union democracy is like looking for smudges on windows when the house is burning down.

''Wall reports that in the mid-1950s there were 25,000 shipboard jobs for NMU seamen, compared with about 7,000 now. The decrease corresponds to a general decline in the US shipping industry, due largely to foreign competition and the introduction of bigger ships with smaller crews. According to Wall, ocean freighters have about a 20-year life span, so those built in the '60s will soon be scuttled, eliminating even more jobs

In view of declining union membership, it's not suprising that NMU critics feel that Mr. Wall's $126,845 salary is excessive.

An outside observer, Professor Summers, says, ''It is high . . . definitely in the upper category'' of union presidents' salaries. Lawyer Arthur Fox says top union salaries should range from $60,000 to $75,000, depending on the size and wealth of the union.

Wall says he cut the president's salary in half when he took over from Curran in 1973. And since that time, his salary has increased by the same percentage as the rank and file's.

Yet some of those who have studied union records say there are expenditures and income not accounted for on the annual fiscal report filed with the Department of Labor. Any business expenses charged directly to the union need not be reported on the Labor Department form. They added up to $993,967 from 1963 to 1973, according to Mr. McInerney.

Income is even harder to keep track of. Officials have allegedly received payments from a Philadelphia law firm that handles seamen's injury claims. The sailors are referred to the firm through the Pilot and the payments are the ''thank you'' for the added business.

Wall says these allegations are ''just not so.''