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Helen Delich Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley died last week at the age of 92. She was a unique individual, tough, kind, profane, funny, and highly intelligent. She was a quick study on every subject she covered as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She became an expert on the operations of the Port of Baltimore, its dock and warehouse workers, the trucking operations, the shipping lines, and the powerful labor unions representing those servicing the port, which she covered for almost 25 years before her appointment by President Richard Nixon as Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). She served in that capacity for six years and later in the U.S. Congress for ten years, resigning to run for governor of Maryland only to lose in the Republican primary.

My dealings with Helen Delich Bentley in the early 1970’s were in her capacity as the FMC Chair and mine as general counsel of the American Cotton Shippers Association (ACSA), whose members exported over 75 percent of the cotton produced in the United States. At that time, the ocean carriers hauling goods from the U.S. enjoyed an antitrust exemption written into the Shipping Act by Congress that allowed them to fix the tariff rates. That special treatment still exists today. The ocean carriers organized into conferences determined by the shipping routes serviced from the East and West coasts to where the ships were bound, be it Europe, South America, or the Far East.

The bulk of the U.S. cotton was then shipped on the member lines of the Far East Conference (FEC) from the ports of Houston and Galveston, Texas, and to a lesser extent, New Orleans, Louisiana. The conference rates were established based on the highest cost of operations by the least efficient conference member, which had the result of limiting the competition among member carriers while allowing the highly efficient lines to profit handsomely. The FEC was run with an iron fist by Jerry Flynn, a tough, determined, and highly intelligent individual. Flynn grew up on 44th Street in Astoria, Queens, down the street from St. Joseph’s Elementary School from where we both graduated, Flynn with one of my cousins about ten years before I did.

I had made it a point to get to know Flynn, but our similar neighborhood backgrounds and our mutual dislike of the Dominican nuns who disciplined us at St. Joseph’s counted for nothing when we sat down with our principals to negotiate shipping rates. Despite the fact that some of the member carriers disagreed with Flynn’s insistence on a non-competitive rate structure, little was accomplished until a new carrier, Sealand, entered the trade. In one-on-one meetings with individual cotton exporters, Sealand made it clear that if we could get the conference to agree to open the rates, whereby the carriers could individually negotiate the rates with exporters, that Sealand, and the other efficient FEC members, would likely offer more competitive rates.

At a meeting in Memphis, a high level delegation of exporters was appointed to meet with the FEC to pursue the question of opening the rates. Prior to the meeting, ACSA members did their homework and contacted most of the FEC members to make a case for opening the rates. The night before the meeting in New York, the exporters met for dinner at the Downtown Athletic Club and again in morning at the old Cotton Exchange building on Beaver Street. For the first time in a meeting with Flynn we seemed to have the upper hand. The FEC members at the table were agreeing with our proposal to open the rates. Flynn’s concern was that such an action could weaken the conference and as a result his influence and effectiveness. Despite Flynn’s reservations, as expressed to his members in an executive session, the conference agreed to ACSA’s proposal, provided that the FMC authorize such action. Enter Helen Delich Bentley.

Two days later, accompanied by ACSA’s president, Ben Baer of Memphis, I met with Bentley in Washington. We explained the situation, noting how the non-competitive rate structure penalized the more efficient lines and how the higher rates made U.S. cotton exports and other U.S. products less competitive in the world market place. Bentley listened carefully to our argument before leaning forward in her chair. “What can I do about it?” she said.

Ben and I discussed our meeting with the FEC and our mutual agreement to open the rates, provided that the FMC authorize such action. She was silent for a few moments before she leaned back in her chair and smiled. “If I were to do so, you know what would happen?” she asked.

“Well, I think ….” Ben Baer started to say before Bentley interrupted him.

“I’ll tell you what I think will happen -- those SOB’s will undress you!”

Ben and I looked at each other not knowing what to think. Then, Bentley stood up, shook both of our hands, and said, “If that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.”

I had also garnered the support of the large maritime unions, the Seafarer’s International and the Marine Beneficial Engineers, who weighed in with Bentley as did Sealand and some of the other ocean carrier members of the FEC. Two weeks later, the FMC authorized opening the rates and for the first time in years the rate structure became competitive and remained so for many years.

About 10 years ago, I ran into Helen Delich Bentley on an elevator in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington. When I greeted her she looked at me at me quizzically. “Do I know you?” she asked. We got off of the elevator together, and as I walked alongside her, I refreshed her memory with the story of our meeting about opening the rates. She smiled. “So it worked out all right?” she asked.

“Yes it did,” I said. “As you can see, I still have my clothes.”  Read More 
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