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Union dispute leaves some freighters stuck at port

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    Still frame grab from video shot by Prentis Hubbard and Cleo Fisher showing the M/V Federal Champlain that was due at Midwest terminals last night at 2100 hours, at 2030 hours the ship encountered a picket boat.

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    Terrance Clemons of the Longshoremens Association, Local 1982 mans a 24 hour a- day informational picket against Midwest Terminals Tuesday in Toledo. Mr. Clemons is a displaced worker since last year.

    THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
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A long-simmering labor dispute between a local longshoremen's union and a Port of Toledo stevedore has led to three ocean freighters being waylaid at the Port of Toledo and a fourth boat being turned away — potentially costing the terminal tens of thousands of dollars a day in lost work.

Local 1982 of the International Longshoremen’s Association has been holding an informational picket outside Midwest Terminals of Toledo International since the company withdrew its recognition of the 32-member union early this year after saying it had received signatures from a majority of union members who no longer wished for union representation.

Local 1982 leadership has challenged the decertification to the National Labor Relations Board.

WATCH: Ship refuses to cross picket line at Midwest terminals (Video by Prentis Hubbard and Cleo Fisher)

But as the dispute wears on, lake pilots have refused to cross Local 1982’s picket line — which at times has included a boat — to maneuver the freighters back to open water, keeping three oceangoing ships at the docks from being able to leave legally.

As of Tuesday, officials said three ships are effectively stuck in Toledo. One, the Federal Champlain, has been held for more than a week, and its arrival in Toledo also was delayed by about 14 hours earlier this month when the pilot then aboard refused to give instructions for docking with the picket boat present.

“For the most part the tug boats and the pilots, they honor the pickets,” said William Yockey, trustee of Local 1982. “That’s where the bottleneck has come from, from the members of the marine community sticking together with their longshoreman brothers.”

Officials at both Fednav, Ltd., which owns the Federal Champlain and another of the three ships currently stuck in Toledo, and Midwest Terminals declined to estimate how much the ship delays are costing the port or the ships’ owners. Union leadership has said each vessel is losing tens of thousands of dollars for each day it sits idle in port.

“Our vessels are being used as bargaining collateral by the parties involved,” Paul Pathy, Fednav’s president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement. “We respectfully request that a peaceful and fair settlement be reached in order for our ships to be released from the terminal and end the shipping delays.”

The Lakes Pilots’ Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Local 1982 and Midwest have been at loggerheads over a labor contract for more than seven years — an impasse tinged by union allegations of racism on Midwest’s part.

While other unions represented at the general-cargo docks Midwest operates on behalf of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority have mostly white memberships, Local 1982 historically had a mostly black membership. However, the makeup of Local 1982 has changed greatly in recent years. Mr. Yockey said in 2013, the union was 95 percent black. Today, it’s 40 percent black and 60 percent white. 

Local 1982 leaders contend Midwest’s inability to negotiate a new contract with them when it has done so with other majority-white unions is rooted in racial discrimination. The discrimination claim is among a laundry list of unfair labor practice claims Local 1982 has filed against Midwest with the National Labor Relations Board.

Among the other issues is the company’s refusal to contribute to a union-sponsored pension plan as provided for in a “master agreement” covering multiple Great Lakes ports. Local 1982 obtained several federal court rulings submitting that issue to arbitration, but Midwest is now challenging the arbitration panel’s makeup because one of its members retired.

Meanwhile, Local 1982 has dealt with its own allegations of discrimination. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission found earlier this year there was probable cause that the union had engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices after an investigation into a union dispatcher found he regularly skipped over white members in favor of black members when calling longshoremen in for work. 

As the standoff has dragged on, so have the tensions.

“It is hurting the bottom line of the port, and it’s hurting the bottom line of the city of Toledo, and it’s hurting the businesses of northwest Ohio that rely on the port for survival,” Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said. “This has gone on long enough and it’s time for this to be resolved.”

Mr. Kapszukiewicz said he has been doing what he can behind the scenes in an effort to find a solution to the dispute. He added it is wrong to describe Midwest Terminals as anti-labor.

“The record is anything but,” the mayor said. “They have excellent relations with the Teamsters and I think there are some unique problems with the Longshoremen, which is why they recently voted to decertify. Once those issues are resolved, I am convinced there will be a local labor solution to this issue.”

Even so, Local 1982’s leadership on Monday accused U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) of illegally calling on the Coast Guard to intervene in the dispute by waiving the requirement that foreign flagged ships use pilots to move the ships in and out of Great Lakes ports. Federal law dictates that the Coast Guard cannot use its authority to favor one party over another in a labor dispute.

The Longshoremen had no documentation to back up that allegation, however, and a spokesman for Senator Portman rejected Mr. Yockey’s characterization, saying the senator’s office had simply been seeking information.

“At the request of Ohio employers and constituent stakeholders, our office along with other congressional offices in the Ohio delegation, reached out to the Coast Guard liaison’s office to understand the Coast Guard’s actions to date and learn why the agency has not been communicating with all relevant stakeholders,” spokesman Emily Benavides said.

Fred Deichert, Midwest’s chief operating officer, said Monday the company had turned to Senator Portman’s office, as well as that of U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), for assistance in “understanding our alternatives” to resolve the matter.

But he also argued that, with Midwest considering Local 1982 to be decertified, no labor dispute technically exists, and therefore the Coast Guard would not be intervening in such a dispute if it were to grant a Midwest request for a pilot waiver to allow the three ships to leave the local port.

“If a pilot is not available, a ship can be granted a waiver to move on to its next port,” Mr. Deichert said, adding as well that the pilots are mistakenly behaving as if there is officially a labor dispute at the port.

Mark Gagnon, Fednav’s director of government affairs, said the ship owner had requested such a waiver from the Coast Guard and was denied.

The ship delays are hurting everyone in the local port, Mr. Deichert said, including the workers and port shippers — although he and Alex Johnson, Midwest’s president, declined to quantify their company’s economic losses. The three vessels occupying dock space also have prevented one other vessel so far from calling in Toledo, causing the cargo it was to have picked up to be delayed.

Local 1982, meanwhile, has called several times on the port authority to take action against Midwest for its alleged refusal to negotiate a contract and discriminatory practices.

Joe Cappel, the port authority’s vice president of business development, said the port authority’s contract with Midwest includes an anti-discrimination clause that could be exercised if the stevedore were legally found to have engaged in discriminatory conduct.

So far, however, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has found “no probable cause” related to eight complaints brought by the union against Midwest — four in 2009 and four last year, commission spokesman Mary Turocy said.

Two cases involving union members’ complaints that Local 1982 discriminated against them are active, Ms. Turocy said.

Mr. Cappel said the port also would like action to either waive the pilotage requirement or order the pilots to go to work.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com419-724-6134, or on Twitter @TyrelLinkhorn.

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