Hard work, not 'happy' news, will save port



Yesterday's work stoppage by Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association -- a k a Richie Hughes' strike -- is clearly a serious blow to the port of Baltimore. But it also highlights some tough issues concerning the appropriate role of the news media (and other parties) in disseminating negative information -- "bad" news, if you will.

Mr. Hughes, leader of the port's unionized clerical workers, decided Monday morning to reject the local contract terms being offered him by management negotiators representing the Steamship Trade Association. His local, one of five ILA units in the port, voted 309-1 against those contract terms Monday night, thus continuing to give Mr. Hughes the kind of support that has made him a formidable force in port labor for a generation.

This time, however, the other four locals in the port voted to go their own way. They bargained for their own local contract (the national ILA pact has already been agreed upon) after Mr. Hughes refused to become part of a portwide bargaining effort, and approved the STA's offer to their locals by a vote of 931 to 171.

By early yesterday evening, the white puffs of smoke emerged from the negotiating session, and Mr. Hughes finally emerged with a proposal he felt he could take to his members. But the fact that it differed so little from the proposal that prompted the work stoppage simply highlights how whimsical, and unreliable, Mr. Hughes has become.

And, although any inconvenience to shippers lasted barely a day, this was the port's second major labor dispute in less than a year, both owing much to Mr. Hughes' efforts. This recent spat, ** sad to say, largely invalidates the image-building that the Maryland Port Administration and many port executives have been trying to do.

Using the state's shining, automated, $250 million intermodal (truck, rail and ship) cargo interchange facilities at Seagirt as their calling card, port leaders have been methodically trying to improve Baltimore's poor image. Seagirt, they've hoped, could begin halting the drain of traffic that's abandoned the piers here in search of better and more reliable treatment at Norfolk and other ports.

Questioning the wisdom of committing so much public money to what is, at best, a slow-growth industry is a useful academic exercise. But in the real world, the money's already been spent, and it's up to the MPA and other port interests to drum up !B enough new business for the public to earn some sort of return on its investment. The best return, of course, would be for additional cargo volumes to create new employment opportunities here and new investment in maritime businesses.

Further, with the world economy poised for a slowdown, it's even more important for a port to have an image of providing reliable and quick service at competitive rates. Losing market share when the pie is growing is embarrassing but may not hurt much. Losing share when the pie is shrinking is a painful failure.

Seagirt was billed as the state's "stopper" -- the facility that could end Baltimore's reversals and provide the port with stability during a period of great turbulence for the global economy.

Today, due largely to labor problems and the past ineptness of the MPA, Seagirt threatens to become a symbol of the port's downfall, not its resurgence. Seagirt's labor-saving computers, its nifty rail interchange facility and its high-speed, double-stack cranes will amount to nothing if the ships don't come.

And today, the ships don't want to come.

How long this feeling persists obviously depends on how the port extricates itself from its current mess, and on how its image fares in the months ahead.

In the all-important image business, the port took a broadside hit Monday when the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story that compared labor relations in the ports of Baltimore and Norfolk. The article, reprinted in yesterday's Sun, contained brutal criticisms of Baltimore. The damage was doubtless compounded when Mr. Hughes decided to take his checkers' local out on strike.

Baltimore's maritime leaders sigh whenever an unfavorable story about the port appears, because they know copies of it will soon be on the desks of shipping executives around the world -- courtesy of the fax machine and the port's competitors, particularly those in Virginia.

New information technology is so powerful that Baltimore officials often seem to wind up spending more time putting out the fires caused by bad news than in solving the underlying problems that served as the basis for a particular article.

They argue, on occasion, that putting more "good" news in the newspaper would help Baltimore's competitive efforts against Norfolk. They say that positive articles are supportive of the public welfare and imply that negative stories are not.

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