Even if the strike by cargo clerks at the Port of Baltimore is
settled today -- as officials on both sides of the table hope it will be -- the port's reputation already has been damaged.
Baltimore has struggled to overcome an image of labor-management instability, and there had been encouraging
signs recently: a peaceful opening of the Seagirt Marine Terminal amid cooperation with the International Longshoremen's Association, and joint appearances by labor and management at meetings with potential shipping line customers.
But that seemed to come crashing down yesterday when the 415-member ILA Local 953 announced it was on strike, and began picketing today outside the North Locust Point Marine Terminal. Two pickets carrying placards walked outside the gate as at least 12 city and state police officers were posted at the terminal in the event of any trouble.
"The clerks' union has already done tremendous damage to our ability to compete and their actions can ruin the Port of Baltimore," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said in a statement released by his office.
"The fact that a small group of clerical workers can attempt to grind this port to a halt and keep many thousands of other people from going to work is outrageous."
Timothy Collins, vice president of operations for Hapag-Lloyd, a major shipping line calling at the port, said "We've always felt that Baltimore has been a more economical port than Norfolk, Va. Now we have to take an even more serious look."
The port of Norfolk has lured away thousands of tons of cargo over the years that once was handled in Baltimore.
The clerks' strike came, ironically, on the same day the Wall Street Journal gave the port an unwelcome dose of national publicity.
The paper carried a front-page story that contrasted labor-management relations in Baltimore with those in Norfolk.
The story reported that union workers in Norfolk work closely with the shipping companies in an effort to load and unload the ships. It found mistrust and unproductive labor in Baltimore, and mentioned clerks sitting around with their feet on desks and selling food to truckers when they should have been processing cargo.
The amount of disruption actually caused by the strike was mixed yesterday. Several members of other ILA locals vowed to work regardless of the clerks' dispute.
"They want the minority to rule the majority. . . They make the most money and do the least work," said Ron Barhorn, a member of ILA Local 333. He said he would not stop for a clerk's picket line.
Another worker, who asked not to be identified, said, "Why should we go for the checkers [the clerks] when they work half a day and get paid all day, and we work half a day and we get paid half a day?"
Ed Dasch, a member of Local 333, however, said, "I will not cross the picket line, regardless of what. . . We're all ILA."
Without someone doing the jobs of the clerks, cargo cannot be dispatched or received by truckers at the terminals. Also, the local's members are responsible for tallying the cargo that is loaded and unloaded from ships and keeping track of stored goods in the marine terminals. And ship lines that seek replacement workers could face fines under their national ILA agreement if their cargo is handled by non-ILA members.
A few vessels were loaded and unloaded yesterday. A crew of about 75 discharged 1,544 railroad cars from the privately owned Atlantic Terminal without checkers -- and did it in the rain, contrary to the port's once-famous reputation for not working in poor weather. A few barges also were processed, said ship line )) officials.
While this was going on, members of the port's other four ILA locals were voting by a 5-to-1 margin in support of a contract agreement reached last week governing their work. The vote was 932 in favor and 171 opposed, with the port's biggest local, No. 333, backing the agreement, 774 to 94.
"Overall, the membership was satisfied," said Edward Burke, president of Local 333. The local contract ratified yesterday was a supplement to a national contract ratified two weeks ago.
There were reports last night of contact between Local 953 and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., a trade group that represents management in the ILA talks. Several sources said the framework of a settlement was emerging. However, Maurice Byan, president of the association, said there had been no meetings and he hoped the union would reconsider its decision.
He said the impact of the strike, even if short-lived, would be "devastating."
"We thought we were making progress," Byan said. "I hope whatever damage is done will be repaired quickly."
He said the Port of Philadelphia has been on strike since Saturday and, "We were hoping to get some of its cargo." That dispute still is unresolved with negotiations resuming today.
Labor agreements have been reached in Hampton Roads, Va., including Norfolk, and in South Atlantic ports from North Carolina to Florida.
Hughes said he was unhappy chiefly with two elements of the Baltimore proposal. The first was the lack of sufficient guarantees that his members would perform all traditional clerking functions as they are computerized.
"Now we are wondering if the state is trying to take our computer work," Hughes said.
The second objection Hughes cited was a concern over the possible transfer of money between benefit funds. The national contract ratified two weeks ago allows money to be moved between funds within a port if labor and management both agree. Hughes said he was concerned, however, that a dispute over such a transfer could be lost in arbitration even if his union opposed it.
A letter circulated by the trade association yesterday to ILA officers attempted to head off that issue by reassuring members that no such transfer was planned.