ILA pact could boost port's competitiveness

November 01, 1990|By John H. Gormley Jr.

An article in The Sun's Business section yesterday contained incorrect information about the current rules governing the unloading of ships in Baltimore. Although ships can be unloaded after 7 p.m., dockworkers must be paid starting at 7 p.m. even if the work does not begin until hours later. For example, if a ship arrived at midnight, the union crews would be paid for the five hours from 7 p.m. to midnight, plus whatever time was actually required to unload the ship.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The master contract agreement for dockworkers reached Tuesday in Florida could help Baltimore mitigate one of its principal competitive disadvantages, the time it takes ships to sail up the Chesapeake Bay to reach the port.

Under the current rules in Baltimore, if a ship arrives in the port after 7 p.m., longshoremen cannot begin to unload it until 7 a.m., a delay of 12 hours. The agreement worked out by representatives of the International Longshoremen's Association and waterfront management Tuesday would give each port the right to decide on nighttime starts.


If the union and management agree, work on ships could start at say, midnight, a move that would save seven hours in the delays that lines now routinely encounter here.

The seriousness of the time issue was illustrated by the decision of Maersk Line a year ago to divert a third of its ship calls from Baltimore to Norfolk because of problems Maersk was having keeping its vessels on schedule. By stopping in Norfolk rather than Baltimore, the Maersk ships could eliminate about 12 hours in sailing time up the bay, giving the line the slack it needed in the schedule to keep the ships on time.

"You don't want to come up the bay only to wait extra hours," David L. Bindler, Maersk's regional director in Baltimore, said yesterday. "It makes it a little more palatable. It's easier to come -- up the bay knowing you're going to be worked right away."

He emphasized that the change, if adopted by local negotiators, will not change the fact of geography that puts Baltimore 12 hours of sailing time from the mouth of the bay and the open ocean. But permitting work to start on ships at night would save a steamship line several hours on the schedule that might otherwise be lost. "It does help," he said.

Lorenzo di Casagrande, who directs Mediterranean Shipping Co.'s operation in Baltimore, agreed that nighttime starts would help the port. "I don't think it's the solution to the problem," he said, but he added, "It would help, definitely, to have that flexibility."

One management source called the provision allowing a nighttime start on ships, "a big plus for Baltimore."

"A lot of ships bypassed Baltimore for that reason," he said. "If we can get a midnight start time, I think we can capture more ships."

A union source said he thought many members of the rank and file would welcome such a change and that ILA leaders in the port would agree to it in exchange for some other concession from management.

"I think they could work that out," the union source said. "I know enough low-seniority men who would jump at the chance to work at midnight for premium pay."

Because of the declining level of work in the port, only the members of the ILA with the most seniority can find regular work.

Both management and the union have agreed not to divulge details of the master agreement covering all ILA ports on the East and Gulf coasts, pending notification of the members. But the contents of the pact are now widely known.

Management and union sources said the master contract provisions include:

* A two-worker reduction in the size of the gangs that work containerships. The basic gang now comprises 20 workers. That would be reduced to 19 members in the first year of the contract and to 18 in the third year.

* A $1 raise in the hourly wage for handling containerized cargo in each of the four years of the contract. Longshoremen now make $18 an hour. Each port is free to negotiate different wage rates for other categories of cargo.

* A 90-cent-an-hour increase over four years in the amount employers pay into the ILA medical-benefits fund. The amount ++ employers pay will rise to $8.05 an hour from $7.15 under the agreement.

* Greater flexibility in the opening and closing times of terminals, on terms to be decided at each port.

That last change is perhaps the greatest departure from past practice. "The concept of flexible time is something totally new and radical" in the industry, a management source said .

If adopted in Baltimore, that provision would allow lines to provide better service and earn a greater return on their assets, and perhaps increase the port's market.

Under the current rules, terminals staffed by the ILA are generally open from 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The new agreement permits individual ports to stagger the assignment of workers so that terminals can open earlier and close later, as well as work through the traditional lunch hour.

Captain di Casagrande said that expanding the hours during which truckers can pick up and deliver cargo would allow the lines to provide better service. Cargo that arrived late in the afternoon would no longer be delayed a day, and shippers farther from Baltimore also would be able to get cargo to the terminal before the gate closed for the day, he said.

Opening at 6 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m., for example, would allow terminal operators to keep their assets working 13 hours a day instead of the current eight.

The master contract will have the effect of complicating and increasing the importance of negotiations on the Baltimore contract, which expires Nov. 30.

Issues that had been part of the master contract talks will now be decided by each individual port.

"The ports are going to be left more or less on their own," said one union member.

No date has been set for the resumption of local negotiations.

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