New pact lauded, but skeptics remain


December 09, 1990|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Because of an editing error, late editions of the Sunday Business section contained an incorrect description of how labor contract provisions affect ship-loading operations at night at the port of Baltimore. Under the old contract, longshoremen's pay would begin at 7 p.m. even if loading could not begin until hours later that night. Since a crew at night costs about $2,500 an hour, most ship owners would choose to delay loading until 8 a.m., the next regular starting time.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

The contract just negotiated with longshoremen in Baltimore increases the size of the crews that load and unload ships, but despite the higher labor costs the port's prospects for growth remain good in the next few years, according to many of the people who depend on the port for their livelihoods.

"I would say Baltimore came out better than other ports," said David L. Bindler, regional director for Maersk Line, the leading steamship line in the port of Baltimore. "It's quite a good deal."


Mr. Bindler is also chairman of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represented port employers in the negotiations with the International Longshoremen's Association. Though he was disappointed that the negotiators were not able to avoid the two-day strike by ILA clerks last week, he said that the greater flexibility won by management in the contract gives port businesses ways to cut some of their operating costs and to improve customer service.

Agreeing to the larger work crews "was worth doing to make it happen," he said. "If you can offer good service second to none, a dollar here or there is not going win or lose that business."

Not everyone in the port is so sure.

When the settlement with the clerks of Local 953, led by Richard P. Hughes, was announced on Tuesday, Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said he was apprehensive that the addition of clerks under the new contract would impair the port's ability to compete. He declined to elaborate on that view Thursday, however.

"There's no question everybody is upset about the strike," Mr. Bindler said, calling it "totally useless and unnecessary."

However, the bitterness left by the strike should not blind people to what has been gained, he argued. "I don't think that should spill over into the contract. The contract was good. The strike was foolish. Those are two different issues."

In some areas, the port of Baltimore did lose ground to two of its chief competitors, New York and Hampton Roads, Va.

* While the competition was taking advantage of the master ILA contract, which permits ports to cut one person from the 20-worker gangs that load and unload ships, Baltimore elected to forgo a cut this year.

* The number of ILA workers required to unload a ship in Baltimore will remain smaller than in competing ports, despite management's agreement to hire more clerks. Baltimore's relative advantage in this area will have shrunk by at least two workers per ship.

What did Baltimore get in return for the bigger crews? In a word: flexibility.

The union agreed to more flexible rules for working on ships at night. Under the old rules, longshoremen would go on the clock at 7 p.m., even if a ship might not be available for loading hours later. That meant paying a crew about $2,500 an hour to "stand by" or waiting to start work at 8 a.m., the next regular starting time.

Under the new agreement, crews in Baltimore can report for work at midnight. Longshoremen in Hampton Roads also agreed to a midnight start, but management there is allowed only four midnight starts a month. The contract gives Baltimore management unlimited use of the midnight start.

ILA clerks in Baltimore agreed to more flexible hours for terminal operations. Under the existing rules, the terminals generally are open to truckers delivering or picking up cargo from 8 a.m. until noon and from 1 p.m. 5 p.m. Under the new rules the gates can stay open from 6 a.m. until midnight, a potential gain of 10 hours over the current eight-hour day.

Norfolk's longshoremen, by contrast, have agreed to rules that will permit terminals to open one hour earlier and remain open through the noon lunch hour. New York did not agree to flexible terminal hours, although the two sides are said to be still discussing the issues. Baltimore also tightened its eligibility rules for its guaranteed-annual-income program, which pays benefits to longshoremen who can't find work on the docks.

Hampton Roads, because it is operating at full employment, does not have to pay any appreciable GAI benefits. New York is offering its longshoremen early-retirement enticements, in the hopes of bringing its work force into line with the available work.

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