Baltimore port strike tilted lines toward Va.

January 09, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

The strike by clerical dockworkers in the port of Baltimore last month was the principal reason a big new steamship consortium chose the Virginia ports of Hampton Roads over Baltimore, Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, said in a speech to the Propeller Club yesterday.

"I know firsthand that it was the poor labor image in Baltimore -- spotlighted by the two-day strike in December -- which proved to be the overriding factor why Baltimore was not selected," she said.

The consortium that chose Hampton Roads, Tricon Services, comprises a South Korean line and two German lines. The consortium would have ranked as one of the most important carriers in the port, handling about 25,000 containers a year in Baltimore, officials of the Maryland Port Administration estimated.

"The timing of the two-day strike could not have come at a worse time," Mrs. Bentley said. "Tricon executives were in the process of making their final phase of selecting East Coast ports, and this strike was for Tricon the straw that broke the camel's back."

Conrad Everhard, chairman of Cho Yang Line (USA) Inc., the South Korean member of the consortium, confirmed yesterday after Mrs. Bentley's speech that the strike did influence the choice of ports.

During a telephone interview from New York, Mr. Everhard said, "Helen Bentley is right" and called the strike a "major contributing factor" in the choice of Hampton Roads over Baltimore.

He said representatives of the port had begun to make progress in persuading steamship lines that the "port of Baltimore has started into an era of stability."

"That was salable," he said. But then, "a very unfortunate thing happened. You guys went on strike. It came totally out of the blue."

Once that happened, he said, the members of the consortium began to have doubts about Baltimore's labor stability. "Genius lies in observing the obvious," he said.

Asked whether Tricon would have chosen Baltimore had the strike not occurred, Mr. Everhard replied, "I can't answer that."

Mr. Everhard said he began his career in the maritime industry during the 1950s as a longshoreman in Baltimore. Baltimore was then considered "probably the best port in the country for stability and productivity," he said. "What's happened to your port is very unfortunate."

The strike by the clerks of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association began Dec. 3 when their leader, Richard P. Hughes Jr., ordered them to refuse to report for work after the breakdown of contract negotiations.

Local 953 has about 415 members. The other four ILA locals -- which represent more than three-quarters of the approximately 2,000 ILA dockworkers in the port -- had already reached agreement with management on their local contract and did not participate in the strike.

At the time, state officials called the strike a devastating blow to the port's rebuilding efforts, a blow they blamed on Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Hughes could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mrs. Bentley did not mention Mr. Hughes by name in her speech. Asked afterward whether her criticism was directed at Mr. Hughes, she replied, "Who called the strike?"

"It was the worst strike that could have happened," she said. "The timing was unbelievable. It was not necessary. . . . God knows what this is going to cost us in man-hours and money."

Mrs. Bentley said that although great damage has been done, she thinks the port can still repair its labor image.

"We must start all over again, and it will be difficult. Shipping lines and shippers won't change their minds easily," she said in ++ her speech. "What we need to do is not impossible. We need to make the determination that we are going to put all our differences aside once and for all."

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