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Legal tremors before Baltimore dockworkers’ strike

October 18, 2013

admin-ajax.phpThe ongoing strike of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in Baltimore, which started on Wednesday and has brought to a halt much international shipping at the Port of Baltimore, has some context: a federal breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in June against Local 333 by the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore (STA), the employers’ agent at Port of Baltimore.

The lawsuit alleges that Local 333 undertook “work stoppages” this past spring, “apparently concern[ing] manning levels” of crews working on the brand-new Saudi-owned Bahri Class ships calling on the port. The stoppages occurred twice – on one day in April, when the M/V Bahri Abha came to port, and another day in May – and violated labor contracts that require the local to “continue to work during the grievance process,” the lawsuit states.

In addition to contract provisions, the lawsuit cites two prior binding arbitration decisions that “prohibit Local 333 from engaging in a concerted slowdown and work stoppage” and to “cease and desist from further violations and continue to work while utilizing the contractual dispute resolution procedures should Local 333 believe there is a violation” of labor contracts.

The storied local’s president, Riker McKenzie, made a phone call to the ILA’s general vice president, Benny Holland., Jr., the lawsuit continues, and Holland explained that the union “agreed to work the Bahri Class vessels,” and told McKenzie to “work the ship until we work out the details.”

In response to the stoppages, the lawsuit explains, the STA’s members met and failed to pass a vote to initiate its own grievance – it deadlocked over whether to call for Local 333 to reimburse the affected employer, Ports America Chesapeake, for damages incurred as a result of the stoppages.

The contract fracas, the lawsuit says, prompted STA and Local 333 to agree “to submit the matter to binding arbitration” – but then Local 333 “refused to arbitrate the matter.” The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Local 333 to enter arbitration, plus attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the case to court.

Despite filing the lawsuit, STA “failed to serve the summons and complaint upon” Local 333, according to an order signed the same day the strike started by U.S. District judge William Quarles, who gave the STA 14 days to “show good cause … why the complaint should not be dismissed.”

According to the May/June 2013 issue of Port of Baltimore Magazine, the Bahri Ahba was the first of six new Bahri Class ships that will be calling on Baltimore. Each one “is priced at $70 million and is designed for ultimate efficiency and performance,” the article states, “while carrying general and project cargo and several other types of roll-on/roll-off (ro/ro) cargo. Despite having more cargo-lifting capabilities, the newer vessels are lighter weight and consume 45 percent less fuel than the existing fleet.”

Strike coverage by Sun reporter Kevin Rector explains that the strike began after Local 333 members voted Tuesday night to reject its contract with the STA, and McKenzie would only explain that STA officials “have been just flat-out refusing to engage” on “housekeeping issues.”

Whether the manning issues involving the new and growing fleet of Bahri vessels coming to Baltimore is one of those issues is unclear – but the lawsuit shows it has been in the recent past.

See a gallery of photos from the dockworkers’ strike.

(photo by Patrick Pilkey)