Richie Hughes Learned Well

Richard P. Hughes Jr.Richard P. Hughes Jr.

Richard P. Hughes Jr. liked to recall the negotiating advice he received as a young union official from the legendary Teddy Gleason, International Longshoremen’s Association president from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“There are two rules you need to remember,” Gleason said. “The first one is, never reveal everything you know.”

Hughes pondered that for a moment, then asked, “What’s the second rule?”

“I’m not going to tell you,” Gleason said.

Richie Hughes always laughed at his punchline, but make no mistake: Beneath his wisecracks and Irish blarney, Hughes was a tough, serious negotiator. He proved it repeatedly in his native Baltimore, where he headed the ILA clerks’ local for years, and as the union’s international president from 2007 to 2011.

Hughes, who died Wednesday at 79, was the ILA’s first president in nearly a century from outside New York (although he had been president of the ILA’s Maine-to-Virginia Atlantic Coast District, which includes the New York-New Jersey port).

He was elected as a compromise choice. Hughes’ close friend and ally John Bowers was ready to retire in 2007, and Harold Daggett, the union’s current president, was still consolidating his support. Hughes emerged as the sole candidate all factions could endorse. He was a leader — smart, savvy, and honest. He was liked and respected by members and by management. He bargained hard to win the best deal for his members, but recognized that employers need to make a buck, too.

Although Hughes served only one term as ILA president, it was an eventful four years. His tenure was dominated by the contract extension he negotiated with United States Maritime Alliance in 2009, the nadir of the Great Recession.

Container lines in USMX were anxious for concessions to help them survive multibillion-dollar losses from plunging rates and a steep drop in trade. On the ILA side, Hughes faced rank-and-file pressure for additional gains, as well as intra-union political maneuvering.

The eventual agreement deferred a scheduled 2009 wage increase and provided other immediate concessions in exchange for back-loaded provisions that raised pay and uncapped the carriers’ per-ton container royalty payments. Despite some grousing, ILA members ratified the extension by a 2-to-1 margin.

Strapped carriers won immediate cost relief to help them through the recession. Meanwhile, the lifting of royalty caps uncorked a gusher of money for annual payouts and benefits to ILA members. Even with modifications in this year’s new contract, the increased royalties still add thousands of dollars to many members’ year-end royalty checks.

Teddy Gleason may not have shared all his negotiating secrets, but he didn’t need to. Richie Hughes was smart enough to figure them out himself.

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