Avoiding docked pay at port Guaranteed income for idle longshoremen is key contract issue

November 11, 1990|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Baltimore longshoreman Fred Frampton usually gets up about 6 a.m. and drives from his house in Glen Burnie to the union hiring hall on Oldham Street in East Baltimore. Often he takes Fred Jr., his 4-year-old son, along.

Mr. Frampton doesn't have to worry that his son will get in the way. Most days he knows before he gets to the hall that no one is going to offer him a job moving cargo on and off a ship.

There is so little cargo moving across the docks in Baltimore these days that Mr. Frampton, a member of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association with 17 years of experience on the docks, was able to find only about 500 hours of work in the last year, less than 10 hours a week.

"With my seniority, when it's busy I've got a shot at a job," he said. "If it's less than 20 gangs, forget it."

It's a rare day in the port when there is enough cargo to put 20 gangs of longshoremen to work. On an average day, about 12 or so gangs are needed. Frequently, the figure is only six or seven.

Still, Mr. Frampton and hundreds of others like him come to the hiring hall almost every day, even when they already know from a taped union telephone message that it will be a slow day in the port.

Why do they come even when they know they will not be hired? The answer is to qualify for a program known on the waterfront by the letters GAI.

The letters stand for guaranteed annual income. The GAI program provides millions of dollars each year in benefits to the port's underemployed and unemployed longshoremen when they cannot find work.

To qualify for the GAI, Mr. Frampton and his fellow longshoremen must appear at the hiring hall each regular workday to make themselves available. If they fail to find work, they then "badge in" to prove that they showed up. If they badge in every day, they are entitled to as much as $28,800 in GAI benefits. Last year, 588 ILA members received more than $8 million in GAI benefits, according to the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., themanagement group that administers the program. The average beneficiary received more than $14,000 in GAI benefits.

The GAI has emerged as the central issue in the current contract talks for negotiators trying to reach an agreement and avert a strike when the current local contract for dockworkers expires Nov. 30.

To union leaders like Edward Burke, president of Local 333, the largest in the port, the GAI is a vital insurance program needed now more than ever.

"When the GAI was given to us, it was given for just this time, when the work slacks off. It's something for the guys to fall back on in hard times," he said.

Management fears that unless something is done to curb the GAI program, the hard times will never end.

Conceived a decade ago, when there was plenty of work in the port, the GAI initially cost employers very little. To finance the program in 1982, employers put aside 25 cents for each hour worked by an ILA member. Today, that assessment is $2.75 an hour, but that's still not enough to cover the cost, as the amount of work in the port continues to decline, putting ever more longshoremen in the GAI lines.

During the most recent contract year, longshoremen in the port logged 2.4 million hours, about 15 percent less than in the year before. Since the GAI is financed by an assessment based on man-hours, financing for it declined at the same time demand for benefits was rising.

(Contracts usually expire Sept. 30, but last year when a three-year pact expired, the master contract covering all ILA East Coast and Gulf Coast ports was extended until Nov. 30 of this year. Each port also worked out local agreements that expire on the same date.)

Although longshoremen received about $8.3 million in GAI benefits this past year, the cost of the program to employers was more than $10 million. In addition to direct GAI benefits, employers paid $2 million to the union pension and health care funds on behalf of those on GAI. The entire $10 million has to be supported by the assessment on cargo.

The combination of declining man-hours and increased benefit payments means the fund is operating at a deficit -- perhaps $3.5 million last year. If current trends continue, that deficit will grow even faster unless the assessment is increased.

Maurice C. Byan, chief negotiator for the Steamship Trade Association, said, "One of our biggest fears is how fast it can grow. What's it going to cost us next year? $15 million? $20 million?

"The worst businessman is one who can't identify his costs. We can't identify that cost in the future."

Mr. Byan said his group may soon be forced to raise the assessment to keep the GAI solvent. "It's simple mathematics," he said.

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