What we know, what we don't

What we know, what we don't

With the new Inter-national Longshoremen's Association contract due to take effect in less than a month, this is a good time to review what we know, what we don't know, and to add an opinion or two along the way. Inquiring minds want to know:

-- Is there any chance of a strike this fall?

That's the most important question for shippers, and the answer is no. The six-year master contract between the ILA and the United States Maritime Alliance is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. The coastwide contract was agreed upon by negotiators in March. It was ratified by union members and signed in June by the ILA and the United States Maritime Alliance, which represents employers. Although ILA dissidents have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the contract ratification, it's important to note that even the dissidents haven't mentioned the word "strike." There won't be one. Atlantic and Gulf ports will be open on Oct. 1. Count on it.

- What's the status of the dissidents' lawsuit?

It's pending in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where Judge Victor Marrero has set a Sept. 17 meeting with attorneys to determine a schedule. The suit was filed by a group of rank-and-file dockworkers who claim voting irregularities at several ILA locals during the June 8 contract referendum. The dissidents claim the conduct of the election violated their rights to fair representation, and they want a new, independently supervised contract vote, and to prevent the new contract from taking effect. The ILA and USMX - which has joined the suit as a defendant - deny that there are grounds to invalidate the contract.

-- What's the likely outcome?

We don't know what the court will do. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the dissidents face an uphill fight. USMX argues that because it signed the contract in good faith, based on the ILA's assurances that it was properly ratified, the court can't declare the agreement void. The dissidents haven't responded to that argument, which could prove crucial. The ILA, meanwhile, challenges the dissidents' contention that disputed votes were enough to overturn the final revised margin of 4,873-3,886. The lawsuit cites three locals where votes weren't counted because proper voting hours weren't observed, and alleges ballot tampering and voter intimidation at a large local in Newark. My opinion: Although the referendum was sloppily conducted in some locals, the dissidents' argument seems to assume that if everything had been done properly, voter turnout in the disputed locals would have been both high and lopsided against the contract. Maybe, but I'm not convinced.

- How much of this stems from union politics?

About 99.8 percent. The anti-contract campaign is part of a larger fight for control of the ILA. Several plaintiffs in the lawsuit are active in the Longshore Workers Coalition, an intra-union faction that's criticized ILA leadership, and the Association for Union Democracy, a Brooklyn-based group that has supported rank-and-file dissidents in several unions. The ILA dissidents weren't going to let the six-year contract take effect without raising a fuss, and they seized on the contract's continuation of a two-tier wage scale to rally opposition among younger dockworkers. The "vote-no" campaign widened the split between the dissidents and ILA President John Bowers and his lieutenants, who complained that opponents didn't speak up until after the contract had been negotiated.

-- How strong is the ILA dissident movement?

This may be the most intriguing question of all, and I don't still know the answer. The dissidents cite their strong anti-contract vote, but that may not be a valid guide. Most of the "no" votes came from a few locals in Hampton Roads, Baltimore, Charleston and Delaware River ports. The dissidents cite election irregularities, but the low turnout in many locals may have been due to simple complacency. ILA leaders admit they didn't mount a strong get-out-the-vote drive. They say turnout in many locals was low because workers who'd been on the job all day opted to go home instead of driving across town during rush hour to vote on a contract they figured would pass easily.

Dissident leaders are energetic and articulate, but most are still on the outside looking in. Few hold union offices, even at the local level. The real test of the dissidents' strength will come when their locals elect new slates of officers and delegates for the ILA's next convention in 2007. Only then will we know for sure.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.