By David Pratt
David Pratt is a longtime labor journalist and has published several books on the topic of fair labor practices and union democracy.
A series of undemocratic measures by the incumbent officers of the American Maritime Officers (AMO) union sparked a challenge in the 2014 election. When the ballots were counted on December 8, the members spoke loud and clear: challengers Paul Doell and Charles Murdock beat incumbent President Tom Bethel and Secretary Treasurer Jose Leonard by a margin of fifty-two percent.
During their campaign candidates Paul Doell and Charles Murdock pointed out that “something went wrong after Tom and Jose were returned to office. Tom lost focus on the greater good, appearing obsessed at times with personal power — even to the point of defying the democratic will of the voting AMO membership majority in a union-wide secret ballot election; poor asset management, reckless spending and questionable real estate transactions became the new financial norm in AMO.”
What is the AMO?
The American Maritime Officers (AMO) was chartered in 1949 as an offshoot of the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers (now the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association or MEBA after a 1957 merger) as a separate union that included only officers. It remained nominally connected to MEBA as a part of District 2 – Great Lakes Region until 1994, when AMO became a freestanding union under the auspices of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Seafarers International Union of North America (SIU). SIU is an umbrella union that includes the union representing marine firefighters, but not MEBA or Masters, Mates, and Pilots (MMP), which is the third major maritime union.
In an article published in the Journal of Commerce shortly AMO separated from MEBA, one critic was quoted as stating that AMO “resembles a personnel agency more than a union” and maintained good terms with operators by heavily disciplining critics and dissidents.
During his tenure, AMO President Tom Bethel demonstrated that he could be quite comfortable using an array of top-down, undemocratic measures. When John Clemons ran for and won the Great Lakes Vice President position in 2010, Bethel marginalized Clemons and kept the defeated incumbent Paul Cree on the payroll and effectively in charge. Bethel went on to push through a constitutional change that did away with the Great Lakes Vice-President position, effective January of 2015, and eliminated the Toledo as a constitutional port.
“These amendments were not proposed, considered or adopted in compliance with the AMO National Constitution,” according to the Doell/Murdock campaign. “The net result is that, as of the New Year, the AMO Great Lakes membership — estimated at 360 engineers and mates, or 10 times Tom’s winning election margin in 2010 — will be without representation on the AMO executive board and without reasonable access to AMO membership meetings.”
In a sustained effort to defend the members democratic rights within the union, John Clemons filed internal charges of impeachment against Bethel. AUD readers are well aware of the potential pitfalls of internal charges and hearings – often described as a court presided over by a certain marsupial from Down Under – but the AMO constitution sets out that one of the three hearing officers be chosen by the charging party. While this common sense measure does not prevent the powers that be from influencing the final decision, it does make possible a much more rigorous consideration of the facts.
In the end, the hearing body did not recommend impeachment of Bethel. It did, however, substantiate that some of Bethel’s actions were less than proper, such as the failure to include Clemons in votes before the executive board. Also taken up was the requirement that matters being voted on be provided in writing.
AMO members are also raised questions about Bethel’s handling of real estate transactions. The union sold some fourteen properties in Dania Beach, around the union headquarters, and elsewhere. In a recent report Secretary Treasurer Jose Leonard cited a $1.4 million equity loss. The Doell/Murdock campaign asked about the high costs of renovation/improvement in advance of the property sales and the comparatively low prices received for some of the properties.
Clemons, who has not wavered in his commitment to the democratic rights of the membership, concludes that the one really “true oversight of the union is the membership.” Their voice was heard on December 3, with the election of two new top officers.
Keep your eyes open for updates in future issues of UDR! We would not be surprised to see election challenges from the ousted incumbents – Ed.