A VERBAL FREE-FOR-ALL it wasn't, dashing the hopes of those carrying notepads for a living.

Rather than a lively give-and-take involving management and labor representatives from all 36 International Longshoremen's Association ports, the joint meeting of waterfront employers and the ILA in Tampa last month was a sedate northeastern show, so quiet eavesdropping was impossible.The meeting consisted of a presentation by the New York Shipping Association and brief comments by ILA President John Bowers, David Tolan, chairman of the Carriers Container Council, and Arthur Lane, president of the Boston Shipping Association. Group participation evidently wasn't intended. I was invited to observe, said a management representative from outside the northeastern sphere of influence, and that's what I did.

Under such a format, no solutions to the problems causing ILA man-hours to shrink could be expected. Still, Mr. Bowers said the gathering was one of the most important meetings we've had in years - one in which the ILA heard in general terms what the employers want in the 1989 master contract, if not sooner, about a year before formal negotiations begin.

* * * * *

AT FIRST BLUSH, news of James Newsome's April 30 resignation as Savannah Maritime Association president struck one as a mere retirement into the world of travel, fishing, gardening, whatever.

It also conjured up visions of a potentially decent story, bringing out an insider's remembrances of and opinions on past ILA negotiations from the man who represented the South Atlantic employers in the talks, the man who selflessly turned down a 1986 proposal by the Savannah checkers to mark Mr. Newsome's birthday as a local ILA holiday.

It wasn't to be, however. Rather than retiring, Mr. Newsome will be heading up the Carriers Container Council's new Savannah office, undoubtedly meaning that reporters checking up on the progress of ILA contract negotiations next year will continue to hear: Now you know I can't tell you that - sort of the management equivalent of Does Macy's tell Gimbel's?

* * * * *

ONE SCARCELY KNOWS how to react to the new openness currently exhibited by the ILA.

Mr. Bowers' invitation to the employers associations to air their views was eye-popping in itself, but not as much as his invitation for the press to sit in as well. That his counterparts on the management side demanded the press leave as soon as a notebook unfolded doesn't alter the fact that Mr. Bowers is making his union and its views more accessible to all interested parties.

But a reporter, accustomed to forced skulking of hallways when the ILA and waterfront employers meet together or separately, was rendered literally speechless by Mr. Bowers' offer to relax in his suite while the ILA met in executive session prior to the joint meeting.

Unable to get a room in that hotel or a seat in the yet to open lounge, the reporter accepted the room key - only to discover the door to that room of the suite had been locked by a maid from the inside.

Nevertheless, remembering back to the 1986 contract negotiations when the manager of a certain Atlanta hotel tried to evict the reporter from his impromptu hallway office, the offer was appreciated.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF MEMORIES, one man who has more than a few is Milton A. Pearlstine, one of the original five board members of the South Carolina State Ports Authority when the agency was created in 1942.

Mr. Pearlstine, now 88 and an authority board member emeritus since his retirement from the board in 1972, was honored for his long service by the port authority with an unveiling last month of his portrait in the port authority lobby in Charleston.

Memories? Just consider that when Mr. Pearlstine joined the port authority, the Port of Charleston consisted of a some run-down piers with no regularly-scheduled ship service. Today Charleston is the third-busiest containerport on the East Coast and boasts assets exceeding $400 million.