New York — 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.
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.
Further, the suit shifts the burden of proof from members to officers. As a result, ''all a member has to do is say, for example, that 'the severance fund is too large' and the officers must rebut the charge,'' Fox explains.
Most important, the court's decision goes beyond former intepretations of Landrum-Griffin. Previously, the union's own internal decisionmaking mechanisms were considered the final word on officers' expenditures. Now an expenditure approved by the rank and file must ''meet muster,'' as Fox puts it. The officers must show that the expense was ''reasonable'' in the eyes of an outsider - the courts.
Charles Summers, a labor law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says, ''One of the values of such lawsuits is that they make public how a union performs.''
Because of the decison, ''one person, hooked up with a good lawyer, can force officers to attain high standards (of behavior),'' says Fox.''One rank-and-filer can do miracles.''
However, union dissidents must first find a good lawyer. Most high-powered labor lawyers are already working for unions or companies. Because of the complexity of labor law, lawyers with backgrounds in other fields are reluctant to lock horns with experienced labor lawyers.
''Who has the money or the stomach to take them (the officials) to court?'' asks Albert Jackson, an NMU dissident from Delaware.
Jackson, who has sailed since 1966, has seen ''both sides of the issue.''
His father was a poor immigrant from the West Indies who helped Curran purge the Communists from the NMU after World War II. He was rewarded with a job as port agent in Seattle and defended the often heavy-handed tactics of the Curran administration. ''It's what happens,'' Jackson says, ''when you get three squares and some money in your pocket.''
''Many of the young people look at union corruption as 'pluses and minuses,' '' Jackson adds. Another NMU member reports that the prevalent attitude on board ship is that members don't care what the officers do as long as they are able to negotiate a good contract for the seamen.
Jackson met James Morrissey in 1968 and began to rethink his position on what the union should be doing. When he looked into union activities, he became outraged.
''There is no democracy in this union,'' Jackson states flatly.
Elections in the NMU are held every five years, the maximum interval permitted by law. Between elections, if a union official retires, resigns, or is fired, his successor is appointed by the union heads in New York.Most of the 32 union halls have two elected officials. They are elected by all members, so that someone running for patrolman (the lowest rung on the union ladder) in Seattle is elected by members as far away as New York and Houston.
''The official candidates have all the apparatus on their side: phones, desks , the Pilot (the union newspaper),'' Morrissey says. Administration candidates can use business trips to the various ports to campaign, he claims, and ''the opposition is restricted to the audience (it) can reach.'' It is no surprise that the administration slate always wins, he says.
Many charge that it doesn't make sense to have the entire membership voting for every office. Jackson suggests port-by-port elections of local officials and unionwide balloting for the five national posts.
A retired union official, who asked not to be named, charges that the elections were often ''rigged'' through ballot-stuffing in favor of the administration candidates.
Officials counter these charges, pointing out that elections are conducted by an independent group, the ''Honest Ballot Association.''
Morrissey convinced the US Labor Department and a federal court that the 1966 election was unfair - that the requirements for candidates were too strict. While the dissidents won this battle, Morrissey lost a narrow tally in the court-ordered election of 1969, in which the union included the votes of some 7, 000 shoreside workers from Panama. The Pilot reported a ''landslide'' victory for the administration slate.
The shoreside workers in Panama (mostly Canal Zone employees) now number about 5,000, and they still vote for all union offices. With roughly 20,000 current NMU members, they make up a significant voting block.
''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.''
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.''
Meanwhile, the union increased membership dues at last year's convention. Delegates voted to charge members 5 percent of their vacation pay in addition to the $240 already levied.
On the face of it, the figure sounded low, but when one dissident group did its homework, the 5 percent meant that dues more than doubled for many members.
A recent edition of Rank and File Maritime Notes, the newsletter of this dissident group, reports:
''There has been widespread opposition to this dues increase. On all the ships we've been on even since it was first rumored a year ago, the 5 percent was voted down. . . . The Pilot, which is bound by the NMU constitution to open its pages to 'constructive criticisms of policies and programs' . . . has distorted or ignored opposition to the increase in its reporting of ships' meetings. Even at the convention, the delegates actively opposed to the dues increase were denied the right to speak against it and could not even get their votes against it counted.''
In the official proceedings of the 1980 convention, only one delegate spoke against the dues increase proposal. None of the discussion spelled out the overall percentage of increase.
''I have the job of negotiating with the shipowners and all the other employers around the country,'' Wall told the 300 delegates. ''I can assure you that you are going to get more than 10 percent increase in your vacation check to take care of it (the dues increase).''
Unions have a close relationship with shipping companies, industry observers say. There hasn't been a major maritime strike for over 10 years. Since 1936, shipping companies have received federal subsidies for operational costs. The allotment is designed to cover the difference between American labor costs and cheaper foreign labor. Observers say the companies have little at stake in signing lucrative contracts for seaman, since the government picks up the tab in the end anyway. In turn, the union has little pressure to hold down its general expenses.
Another issue of Rank and File Maritime Notes says: ''The collusion between the union's leadership, shipping companies, and government has eroded and partly destroyed the strength and interest of . . . all maritime workers.''
In the six editions published since its inception in 1978, the newsletter argues that the union leadership has agreed to let shipping companies develop technology that has decreased jobs in exchange for temporary economic concessions.
Alfred Maskin, executive director of the American -Maritime Association, which represents US-flag companies in labor relations with unions, agrees. ''Unions have displayed a great willingness to reduce crew sizes and recognize technological advancements,'' he says.
The dissidents also argue that union leaders have not attempted to organize foreign-flag ships owned by American companies.
Discussing the general trend of labor negotiations over the years, historian Bunker observes that some union leaders realized that ''you can't keep hitting companies over the head and expect to succeed.'' The leaders' ''statesmanlike attitude'' was a ''matter of survival'' in view of the pressures felt by both labor and management.
At the same time, Bunker notes, leaders have tended to ''become fat cats for one reason or another. . . .
''Morrissey had a legitimate gripe,'' Bunker continues. ''He put his life on the line.''
Morrissey was brutally attacked before the 1966 election just outside the union hall, received a death threat three years later, and had to go to court to get back his union credentials when officials had tried to revoke them.
Most dissidents now are not as vocal as Morrissey or Jackson. They hide their identities - only one person signs a full name to the Rank and File Notes -- Roy Rydell, an older seaman associated with some of the original union organizers. He could not be reached for comment. Younger dissidents, who don't want to jeopardize their jobs, talk hesitantly and sign written statements with initials.
''I'm pretty pessimistic about the future,'' says Morrissey. ''The only way that things can change is if there is a public outcry.''
Jackson feels differently.
''Morrissey opened the door just wide enough,'' he says, ''so that someone can step up and kick it.''