Unflattering Wall Street Journal article is another blow to troubled port

December 04, 1990|By Daniel MachalabaTed Shelsby | Daniel MachalabaTed Shelsby,The Wall Street Journal

NORFOLK,VA. — The port of Baltimore received a big dose of national publicity yesterday -- and it was not very flattering.

A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal pointed out the major differences between labor relations and work ethics at the port here, where shipping traffic has declined 21 percent the past decade, and the port at Norfolk Va., which as posted a 130 percent jump in traffic the past ten years.

The port of Baltimore has been concerned about its image problems around the world, and has tried to use the recent opening of the $250 million, automated Seagirt terminal to create a more positive view of operations here. However, the largely negative portrayal of Baltimore in the nation's most influential business newspaper was widely discussed yesterday as a major blow, especially when linked with the dock clerks' strike that erupted yesterday.

"It was accurate," said Richard H. Trainor, Maryland's outgoing secretary of transportation, who also is chairman of the Maryland Port Commission. "You just can't argue with it."

Donald K. Bollhorst, president of Anchor International, a foreign freight forwarder and a customer of Baltimore's port, also agreed with the focus of the Journal article. "What they say, in my opinion, is absolutely true," he said. "The whole port suffers because of a guy like Richard Hughes."

Richard P. Hughes Jr. is business agent of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents the cargo clerks who went on strike yesterday.

"This is very frustrating," said Mr. Bollhorst. "Richard Hughes doesn't know what he's doing. He doesn't know he's really hurting the port. He's putting us in the toilet."

M. Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro & Co. Inc., said the article was "basically true" but added that he felt it "came down too hard on Baltimore."

"It could have been a little more upbeat," he said, by pointing out some of the advantages "we have over Hampton Roads." It hit the labor relations problems, but there is more to running a port than labor relations."

Mr. Shapiro pointed out that a paper in Norfolk ran a story last week expressing the concern of port officials there about the new aggressive attitude in Baltimore.

The Journal story NORFOLK, Va. -- Raymond Watson, crane operator and union man, is keeping a close watch on productivity these days. A computer screen in his rig tells him how many containers he has lifted off ships in port, and he keeps an eye on work done by cranes nearby. Naturally, there is competition among operators, he says. "It's just pride in what we do."

Drive north 150 miles to Baltimore, and the scene is quite different. Charles Byard, a clerk on duty at Baltimore's sprawling Dundalk Marine Terminal, is reading a newspaper, his feet propped up on his desk. The truck drivers lined up six deep at the nearby check-in window aren't his problem, he says. He processes outbound containers only; besides, he insists, the computer for handling incoming cargo is already occupied.

It isn't hard to see why Baltimore's port has been losing business to Norfolk in recent years. Messrs. Watson and Byard provide a snapshot of the vastly different labor relations -- and work ethics -- at the two ports. They also suggest the ways America's shipping centers will have to change to stay competitive in the 1990s.

In Norfolk, where members of the International Longshoremen's Association work closely with management, shipping traffic has jumped 130 percent in the past decade, making the center one of the largest general-cargo ports on the East Coast. Management is so pleased with productivity it has rewarded the port's crane operators with a special lounge with sofas and a TV set.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, relations between labor and management have been frosty at best, and it shows on the docks. Partly because of work slowdowns, strikes and the port's inability to keep up with change, traffic has dropped 21 percent in the past 10 years. Until last January, it was the only port in the U.S. where dockworkers refused to work in the rain, though today local unions were to vote on a new four-year contract that could help the port become more competitive.

Labor isn't the only reason the fortunes of the two ports have been diverging, of course. For years, Baltimore had a geographical cost advantage over Norfolk: It is physically closer to the Midwest, so shippers had lower rail expenses after they unloaded goods destined for the American heartland. But after the railroads were deregulated in 1980, one into Norfolk slashed its rates. Ships no longer had to wend their way up the Chesapeake Bay to unload at Baltimore; Norfolk -- right on the ocean -- had a new allure.

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