Association for Union Democracy

Democracy Battles Continue to Pay off for MEBA Members, But Industry Changes Bring Ongoing and Future Challenges

By David Pratt

David Pratt, a labor reporter for many years, is the author of Running for Local Union Office as well as several other labor publications.

Members of the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association (MEBA) recently had the chance to elect new leaders. On the plus side there were numerous candidates to choose from. Improved election procedures, like the printing of candidate material in the union magazine, were also a welcome change from days of old when fear and election irregularities were a rule of thumb.

When the counting was done, incumbent President Mike Jewell had lost by a margin of 140 votes to independent candidate Marshall Ainley. Ainley, not politically active in the past, ran on a record of integrity as a member. He had made some attempt to pull together a slate, but came up short on that front in advance of the election. Behind Jewell’s loss and Ainley’s election win, however, lie difficult issues that MEBA members have had to confront during the Jewell administration – and will continue face in different forms going forward.

Pension issues loomed large in voters minds, for good reason. The pension fund had been fully funded for years – so much so that employers had not had to pay contributions for twenty years. At least some of those savings were shifted into wages, serving members well on that front. But when the fund required additional funding during Jewell’s administration, the fund trustees (including Jewell) voted to require member contributions equal to eleven percent of base wages.

Union pensions are under attack across the U.S., so MEBA is not alone in this predicament. “But it might have been seen differently,” one member pointed out, “if Jewell had gotten with the members about it or even had a straw vote on the proposed change. Instead it was poorly explained.”

While pension fund trustees (usually three union and three employer) have the legal right and obligation to make decisions in the interest of the fund, there is nothing stopping union leaders from engaging members on the issues and possible solutions – or even holding straw votes to determine what the union trustee positions might be or to demonstrate support for union positions like increased employer contributions. None of this happened, leaving members out in the cold regarding the future of their pensions.

Similarly, Jewell and the executive council decided unilaterally to pull out of the Marine Trades Department (MTD) of the AFL and join up with the Maritime Trades Alliance of the International Longshoremans’ Association (ILA). The unity inherent in the MTD had been instrumental in winning and defending key legislation that in turn protects MEBA work. Some benefits may come from a link with the ILA but dropping out of the MTD, especially without a membership say, was incomprehensible to many and a bad sign of what might come.

MEBA is not alone among U.S. unions in the face of globalization and the relentless demands by capital and corporations for greater and greater “efficiencies” – lower costs and higher profit margins. But the specifics of MEBA’s fight for survival calls for a high level of unity. Leaving members out of the loop on key decisions fractures potential unity.

Union democracy isn’t an easy, one-step process. While MEBA members have won and held onto key democratic rights around elections, those gains need to be used to put in place democracy that works on a daily basis to activate and involve members in fighting for the future of the union.

Jewell’s largest obstacle was anger over the member pension contributions, though, and it translated into an election win for a candidate who is essentially unknown and untested on the issues.

The election transition, combined with the ongoing changes wrought by the globalization of shipping, may foreshadow an unclear course for MEBA in the coming months or years. Of course members have risen and organized in the past to win greater democracy. Members may rise and mobilize in the coming period to help set new and stronger directions.

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