With the steel gripper of his crane firmly locked onto the 15-ton box, Al Wrzosek hoisted the cargo container off the deck of the Sea Merchant early today and lowered it with a clunk onto the chassis of a waiting truck.
It was a move the dockworker has performed thousands of times, but port officials considered it revolutionary. And they hope its clunk was heard round the world.
Working by lights, Wrzosek's crew was the first scheduled under the new midnight-start rules in a labor contract settled two weeks ago. Several ports now have late-start rules, but Baltimore's are among the most flexible and officials hope they send a message of cooperation to a shipping world increasingly skeptical of Baltimore.
"It's part of a new era for the Port of Baltimore," said Brendan "Bud" O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Nighttime work is not unusual at the port. But scheduling rules made it expensive and ship lines avoided it when they could. With the previous starting times of 7 or 8 in the morning and 1, 5 or 7 p.m., a ship arriving late at the port had two alternatives: sit idle until morning or hire labor and begin paying the workers at 7 p.m.
Any work performed after 5 p.m. and before 8 a.m. pays time-and-a-half under the contract of the International Longshoremen's Association. So employees working up until 7 a.m. were paid the equivalent of 16 1/2 straight-time hours with a lunch hour subtracted.
The new contract eliminates much of that stand-by pay, but calls for a minimum of six hours of time-and-a-half and two hours of double-time for up to seven hours of work. This means workers will receive the equivalent of 13 hours pay, or about $247 at the current $19-an-hour rate.
The savings is only 3 1/2 hours a worker, but it adds up when spread across a few crews and more than 50 longshoremen. For example, a ship using two crews -- known as "gangs" on the waterfront -- can unload from midnight to 7 a.m. for almost $3,500 less in wages under the new contract.
"It definitely will save the ship companies money," said Doug Wolfe, marine superintendent for Ceres Corp., the cargo-handling firm servicing the Sea Merchant.
The 570-foot-long, gray-hulled AmTrans ship was running behind schedule and needed the midnight start to help it catch up. It arrived from Philadelphia at the Dundalk Marine Terminal about 10 p.m. and hired one crew for 7 p.m. and a second for midnight.
Even the extra labor costs of the late starts can be made up in fuel savings if the ship can make up for lost time without having to speed up, Wolfe said.
Rough winter weather frequently delays ships, especially in the North Atlantic sea lanes Baltimore depends on. All too often ships skip Baltimore at the last minute to compensate.
To reach the port, ships have to travel 150 miles up the Chesapeake Bay or 100 miles down the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The midnight start provides an incentive to bring the ships anyway.
"It's particularly important for us," O'Malley said. Making full use of the port's huge capital assets -- such as the $250 million Seagirt Marine Terminal -- requires maximum operations, he said.
At the rival Port of Hampton Roads, Va., longshoremen agreed to a maximum of four midnight starts a month and the workers have to be ordered a day in advance. Baltimore's contract allows for unlimited midnight starts with the labor ordered by 3 p.m.
"If it helps out and gets us some more work, I'm for it," said Wrzosek, a member of ILA Local 333.
His son, Chris, also a member of the crew, said adjusting to the schedules is difficult. Yesterday, they worked 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then started up again at midnight.
"But the way it works out down here, you may not work for three or four days," Chris Wrzosek said.
This morning, he wore long underwear and an insulated jumpsuit to guard against the biting cold. Working on the eastern side of the terminal, where the Sea Merchant was moored, also is tough when the sun comes up and casts long shadows of the ship on the terminal 70 feet below the crane making it difficult to see, he said.
Terminal workers storing and distributing cargo on the terminals also may be scheduled for round-the-clock operations under the new contract, though that is not expected any time soon. More likely, port officials said, are schedules that will keep the gates open a few hours longer than the current 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to allow truckers to pick up and deliver goods.
Such flexibility could help the port regain lost business, officials say.
"Over the long-run, it will help," Wolfe said.