Rep. Helen Delich Bentley has called on maritime business leaders to pull together to help end labor disruptions at the Port of Baltimore before those disruptions put an end to the port.
Bentley, R-2nd, said she will do her part and exert pressure on labor leaders and management on the docks to bring about a better spirit of cooperation.
"We must work together to get this port back on its feet, because if we don't, there is little doubt . . . that there will be a bleak future ahead, or maybe there won't be any future at all for the maritime industry in Baltimore," she told members of the Propeller Club of Baltimore yesterday.
Bentley blamed labor troubles for the recent decision by a consortium of shipping lines to choose Hampton Roads, Va., over Baltimore as the Middle Atlantic port-of-call.
Several Eastern ports had vied to be a stop on the round-the-world service, with Baltimore offering its new Seagirt Marine Terminal.
But Tricontinental Services, known as Tricon, picked Virginia. A representative of the consortium said several factors, including labor problems, played a role in the decision.
But Bentley said she was convinced a two-day labor dispute at the port was the main reason investors in the consortium refused to bring their business to Baltimore.
"I know first-hand 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," Bentley said. "This was the third disruption to port operations in the past 16 months and, although two may have been very brief -- 30 to 96 hours -- the fact that a strike occurred is all that the steamship lines remember."
Bentley said the timing of the strike by Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association could not have been worse. "Tricon executives were in the process of making their final phase of selecting East Coast ports and that strike was, for Tricon, the straw that broke the camel's back."
Officials of Local 953 could not be reached for comment.
Bentley said she was not criticizing only the longshoremen. "I am speaking about the entire port community," she said.
Tricon would have brought 17,000 standardized cargo containers and millions of dollars of business to Baltimore each year, Bentley said.
The consortium represents three ship lines, the Senator and DSR lines of Germany and Cho Yang of Korea. As a group, the lines will deploy 24 vessels in a round-the-world service calling weekly at ports in Asia, Europe and the United States. Calls on the East Coast will begin next month.
Bentley reminded her audience that Baltimore no longer enjoys the advantage it had just a few years ago. Deregulation of the trucking, rail and shipping industries has meant that shipping lines must be more selective in the ports they use. Baltimore is 150 miles farther away from the Atlantic Ocean than is Hampton Roads.
"No matter how you cut it, when steamship lines elect to use Baltimore, they must calculate both the costs associated with the round-trip Chesapeake Bay or C&D Canal transit and the additional 16 to 20 hours of steaming time into their schedule."
Hampton Roads has lured thousands of tons of cargo from Baltimore's piers over the past decade.
Baltimore must be ready to offer better service than its competitors, starting with winning the confidence of the lines, which are nervous about the port's labor problems, she said. "Baltimore cannot afford even the slightest bubble in its image," she said.
Bentley said she hopes her plea will persuade everyone associated with the port to cooperate in improving the port's image.
"I'll be working behind the scenes to try to get the groups talking to each other," she said.
Bentley acknowledged that a number of special councils and groups have tried over the years to smooth out differences between labor and management. For example, only last month, Horace W. Davis, president of Local 1429 of the International Longshoremen's Association, called for a special conference and mediation committee to improve relations.
Bentley emphasized that attitudes must change and leaders must be willing to swallow their egos. "Maintaining the status quo simply will do nothing -- except drive more lines and cargo away," she said.