Port at a Crossroads

November 19, 1990

This is a time of great anticipation for the Port of Baltimore. A state-of-the-art marine terminal recently opened, promising major cost-savings for large shippers. Modernization plans for other port terminals are under way. Business and labor leaders are exhibiting a determined, cooperative attitude. These are signs of substantial progress in restoring Baltimore to maritime prominence.

And yet, there is apprehension on the docks. No one is sure if the new Seagirt Marine Terminal will, indeed, lure big-time customers to Baltimore. The economic recession could put a crimp in maritime traffic. And difficult negotiations on a new local union contract could negate recent efforts to put Baltimore back in competition for business with other East Coast ports.

The labor situation is the most crucial and unstable element in the port's future. If longshoremen refuse to make concessions to lower port costs, they could drive away more cargo from Baltimore. If dockworkers strike over contract matters, Baltimore's reputation as a port with a bad labor situation will be reenforced. But if a local contract is signed that leads to savings of time and money for shippers, Baltimore could be ready to launch a strong comeback in 1991.

A key sticking point is the union's Guaranteed Annual Income fund, an employer-supported program that paid 588 longshoremen $8 million last year for not working. It is a costly program in ports where dockside jobs are declining (but in a booming port like Norfolk, the GAI is rarely invoked because there's plenty of work to go around). Unless revisions are made in Baltimore's GAI, steamship operators may have to increase their charges to shippers to pay the added cost of this program, which ran a $3.5 million deficit last year.

That would undermine efforts to lure new shippers. It also would blunt the positive impact of the Seagirt Terminal, which is still seeking tenants.

In this period of uncertainty, Baltimore's port can succeed only if all parties make sacrifices. That includes the state, which may have to spend additional money to entice new cargo business and lower port charges. This and other concessions may be difficult to achieve during a recession, but too much is at stake to let the Port of Baltimore continue its decline.

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