John Bowers enjoyed a good, rousing speech and could deliver one himself when the occasion demanded. But that wasn’t his preferred style.
Bowers, who died Sunday at 88, was a master of the quieter art of negotiation. As president of the International Longshoremen’s Association from 1987 to 2007, he got things done in a low-key manner that was deceptively effective.
He honed his bargaining skills during 24 years as the ILA’s executive vice president and chief behind-the-scenes troubleshooter under the late Teddy Gleason, the union’s leader during containerization’s formative years in the 1960s and 1970s.
Former Rep. Helen Bentley, R-Md., was a Baltimore Sun maritime reporter and Federal Maritime Commission chair during those years. At a 2008 testimonial dinner for Bowers, she recalled the Gleason-Bowers duo as a “bad cop/good cop” team – Gleason could be volatile and combative, Bowers was quiet and diplomatic, but each was effective in his own way.
Bowers led the ILA through difficult times. He took over the union in 1987 just as the ILA’s southern locals were reeling from the loss of thousands of breakbulk and bulk cargo jobs to non-union competitors. Economic shifts were affecting cargo flows. Rising medical costs threatened to bankrupt local benefit programs.
As ILA president, Bowers negotiated two decades of strike-free contracts that encouraged renewed investment in Atlantic and Gulf ports, and worked with management to establish a coastwide medical program that’s the envy of workers in most other industries.
He also had to defend his union from government anti-racketeering investigations that extracted a heavy personal toll, and fend off criticism from some members that he was too accommodating to management.
Through it all, Bowers maintained a quiet dignity. Even his critics acknowledged his honesty, sincerity and fundamental decency, and his devotion to his members.
He was a good man in a tough business.