Storm at the port

December 04, 1990

Regardless of the outcome of the latest labor dispute at the Port of Baltimore, the strike called yesterday by unionized cargo clerks serves to underscore the port's image as a place where smooth operations take a back seat to bad labor-management relations. Some port observers argue that the negative view of the port portrayed in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday is out of date, that the atmosphere has improved significantly. Try explaining that to shippers who today aren't sure whether they can get their goods unloaded, and for whom every delay is costly.

Richard Hughes, business manager for ILA Local 953, broke off contract negotiations yesterday and declared his union of clerks and cargo checkers on strike. Meanwhile, other ILA locals were preparing to vote on a contract that many members were describing as the best offer they have gotten in several years. Hughes, a shrewd, tough negotiator, has earned a reputation for taking care of his people -- even at the expense of other port workers or of the competitiveness of the port as a whole. That kind of damn-the-consequences maneuvering reinforces the contrast between Baltimore's troubles and Norfolk's relatively harmonious, cooperative style of labor-management relations -- a contrast that served as the theme of the Wall Street Journal's story.

Hughes' latest power play also demonstrates again that the port's fiefdoms still refuse to recognize their true enemies. The question at the port is no longer how well the various players spar in the familiar game of labor vs. management, but whether these fiefdoms will ever understand that the challenge they face is a do-or-die competition for survival -- and whether that realization will come soon enough to make any difference.

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