American President Lines Ltd. sold the President Cleveland, a 20-year-old partial containership, to Victory Maritime Inc. in January 1989. Sealift Inc. is the managing agent for Victory, so it handles the union contracts.

APL's union contract on the vessel was with the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association's District No. 1. It covered a mixed crew of permanent and temporary employees, including six engineers authorized under an operating subsidy agreement with the government.District 1 handles collective bargaining agreements for licensed officers and unlicensed personnel on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts.

Sealift, operating unsubsidized in the tramp trades, has a contract with MEBA's District 2, which represents officers employed on the Great Lakes, for the most part. Its contract permits four engineers.

According to an attorney familiar with the unions' position, "APL did what the collective bargaining agreement required." The carrier, as a condition of the sale, enforced the sales and transfer clause by requiring Sealift to hire the District 1 crew and provide wages and benefits comparable to what they received when employed by APL.

"Sealift clearly and plainly thumbed its nose at the agreement," said a union source.

A Sealift source said it was "forced to comply" to consummate the sale: It hired all six engineers but told four to report for duty. The Cleveland set sail last March but encountered a District 1 picket line when it called at Longview, Wash. The vessel was immobilized.

The union claimed Sealift had to use all six engineers. Sealift relented so that the vessel could sail.

Sealift then filed charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB and a claim seeking $250,000 in damages in federal court. That could be trebled under a separate claim that the unions also violated antitrust law.