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Published: Wednesday, 6/16/2004

Justice Dept. probe, dispute with rival roil maritime union

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
A dormitory is part of the $10 million expansion of the union's training school in Toledo. A dormitory is part of the $10 million expansion of the union's training school in Toledo.
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

As members the American Maritime Officers Union celebrated completion of a $10 million expansion at a training school in Toledo late last year, officers were waging two low-key but significant battles.

The small ship's officers union, which has Great Lakes headquarters in Toledo and national offices near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was locked in a nasty dispute with a rival union at the same time it was under scrutiny in a four-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

The investigation, the existence of which was revealed in annual filings required of labor unions under federal law, began in 2000 with subpoenas issued by a federal grand jury in south Florida, the union said. It involves the U.S. Labor and Justice departments.

Michael McKay, national president in Dania, Fla., and Dan Smith, Great Lakes vice president in Toledo, couldn't be reached this week.

Although the Labor Department filings offer few details about the investigation, the union said an internal committee is studying possible improper use of housing, catering services, and tickets to sporting events that belonged to union-linked funds for pensions, health care, and other benefits.

"AMO has produced a substantial number of documents in response to the subpoenas," the filing, made in June, 2003, stated. "Through the date of this filing no litigation arising from the subpoenas has been brought."

Also last summer, the union's national executive board offered to provide attorneys to current and former employees who are not targets of the inquiry but whom investigators asked to submit to interviews.

Carlos Castillo, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Miami, said he was unable to comment on the investigation or even to confirm it existed.

Union annual reports mentioned the investigation for three years. However, an amended version of the June, 2003, report filed this year made no mention of the investigation or a possible outcome.

The probe was going on at the same time that the AMO was waging an organizing battle with the Washington-based Marine Engineers Beneficial Association union.

The feud, as part of which an AMO Web site branded Marine Engineers' President Ron Davis the "scab with the thickest crust," involves Mr. Davis' attempts to re-establish the Marine Engineers on the Great Lakes.

That effort is at the heart of a lawsuit filed Dec. 10 in U.S. District Court in Toledo by the AMO against Interlake Shipping Co., of Richfield, Ohio.

Rather than continue to bargain with AMO when the union's labor agreement with Interlake expired Aug. 1, company executives negotiated and signed a contract with the Marine Engineers, both sides agree. But AMO contends that about 100 AMO engineers, chief cooks, and licensed mates were then coerced into switching unions.

The lawsuit, which was assigned to Judge James Carr, says the company acted improperly and seeks to compel Interlake to submit the matter to an arbitrator. Interlake denies it did anything wrong.

Ordinarily, the AFL-CIO might have tried to intervene on AMO's behalf. But that union, unlike the Marine Engineers, was not a member of the labor federation until November, when AMO voluntarily affiliated with the Seafarers International Union, an AFL-CIO member.

In a pointed letter on the subject Aug. 18, AMO President McKay rejected the Marine Engineer union's president's call for a meeting to discuss a possible merger. "If you do not understand that, I suggest you adjust your medication once more," Mr. McKay wrote in the letter, a copy of which was posted on AMO's Web site.

Said a Marine Engineers' spokesman, who asked not to be identified, "We don't play their childish games. They're very bitter."

Mr. McKay has lashed out in writing at two former deputies who he says defected to the Marine Engineers after an unsuccessful attempt to unseat him in 2001. Jerry Joseph and Tom Kelly, former AMO vice presidents, aided the Marine Engineers' efforts at Interlake, Mr. McKay said.

AMO lists about 4,000 members nationally. The Marine Engineers group has about 20,000 members, including about 5,000 who are employed in shipping.

Late last years, AMO completed a six-story, $10 million dormitory on Toledo's downtown riverfront next to its Simulation, Training, Assessment, and Research Center. As many as 1,500 mariners travel to Toledo each year to take classes at the center.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.

Mr. McKay said in a Sept. 9 letter to members, also on the union's Web site, that the Marine Engineers' 10-year contract with Interlake is "cut-rate." The letter provided few specifics, however.



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