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Mutiny on the docks; Seafarers' Union Buffeted By Corruption Charges

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On the broad stretch of the Hudson River that flows by lower Manhattan, freighters and tugboats cut graceful swaths toward their berths. Deckhands stroll along the decks and prepare the mooring lines, their voices visible as clouds of steam on this blustery winter morning.

Only two blocks from the gray docklands, the National Maritime Union (NMU) headquarters appears as a white monolith. Hundreds of windows shaped like portholes dot its sides.

But seamen on the Hudson and leaders of the nation's largest seafarers' union are separated by more than space. The stark contrast between the NMU's carpeted offices overlooking West 17th Street and the rusty decks of an ocean freighter symbolizes a much wider rift. Before the AFL-CIO convention in mid-November, president Lane Kirkland said the growing gap between officers and rank and file is an ''increasing problem.''

Rank-and-filers tell the same story time and again: Union officials don't know what it's like to be a seaman. One seaman puts it graphically: ''Some of them couldn't even tie their shoes aboard a ship.''

Distraught by what they view as corruption and despotism, and spurred by a recent legal victory, small and scattered bands of NMU dissidents have taken up arms against their union's leaders in a battle that could send ripples far beyond the waterfront. When the smoke clears, unions may find themselves sailing toward more democracy and accountability.

It's unusual that seafarers should chart the course toward greater accountability in unions, according to some maritime experts. ''By the very nature of seafaring,'' says maritime historian John Bunker, ''it is not likely for sailors to know what's going on in the union.''

A seaman who spends over half the year sailing around the world visits the union hall infrequently. Since union -patrolmen often come aboard when a ship is docked, a member need not even set foot into the hall to pay his dues. He has little contact with members other than his shipmates (a group that can change as fast as a game of musical chairs), and has scant opportunity to express his beefs, let alone develop an opposition to the official hierarchy.

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