A dispute between two districts of a maritime union almost caused a strike on eight U.S.-flag liquid natural gas vessels when one union faction refused to dispatch radio officers to the ships.

The 1992 incident took place at Energy Transportation Corp., a New York shipping company that crews its vessels through a labor contract with District 1/Marine Engineers Beneficial Association. It is led by Gordon M. Ward.At the time, Alexander C. Cullison, the former president of National MEBA, was in a bitter conflict with the Ward group over its seizure of the union's hiring halls earlier that year. Mr. Cullison took office after C.E. "Gene" DeFries resigned from the union in March 1992.

The situation was a delicate one for Thomas C. Harper, a key ally of Mr. DeFries and Mr. Cullison and president of the Radio Officers Union/District 3- MEBA. Since 1978, Energy Transportation's radio officers had been supplied through a "pass-through" agreement with Mr. Ward's union.

In July 1992, according to Energy Transportation, a radio officer suddenly informed the company that he could not report for work on one of its vessels. The company contacted an official with Mr. Harper's rivals in District 1/MEBA, which dispatched another radio officer.

The move angered Mr. Harper. In a letter to The Journal of Commerce, he said he wrote letters seeking an explanation from Energy Transportation and the Ward group but "neither was ever answered." He then instructed 16 Energy Transportation members to sign cards pledging loyalty to his union and refusing to be dispatched through District 1/MEBA.

Energy Transportation, in an affidavit filed in connection with the case, said that if Mr. Harper had persuaded his members not to report to work, ''such failure would have been tantamount to a strike."

The affidavit said that "ETC has never had direct contact with the ROU."

A company executive, who requested anonymity, said he has concluded that the incident was sparked by Mr. Harper's desire to strike back at Mr. Ward.

"The head of the ROU sensed that Gordon (Ward) was vulnerable and tried to

cut himself a bigger chunk of turf," he said.

All but one of the radio officers refused to sign Mr. Harper's pledge cards and continued to ship through District 1/MEBA. In March 1993, 11 of them were suspended from the radio officers union for violating the union's shipping rules.

Lewis Smith, who is trying to unseat Mr. Harper in an ongoing union election, charged that Mr. Harper forced the Energy Transportation members out of the union because they were Smith supporters and would have voted against Mr. Harper.

Mr. Harper denied that, but said the "ETC members apparently felt more loyalty to the engineers than to their fellow radio officers."

He accused Energy Transportation and District 1/MEBA of making an ''unprovoked assault" on his union by hiring non-ROU members.

Mr. Ward said his union directly recruited a radio officer "only after ROU would not fill the ETC positions" to satisfy its contract obligations. "ETC had no agreement with District 3 so we did not 'raid' any jobs from District 3," Mr. Ward said in a letter to his members.