Bleak Dock News

January 13, 1991

What's the good news from the Port of Baltimore? It is still open for business. What's the bad news? Almost too horrible to contemplate.

That about sums up the bleak outlook on the docks. December's two-day strike by union boss Richard P. Hughes and his clerks local has had a devastating impact that could be felt for years to come. The result already is less cargo - and thus fewer longshoremen's jobs - at the port.

Baltimore's poor labor image was the "overriding factor" in the decision of Tricontinental Service to take its business to Norfolk. The Hughes-led strike convinced Tricon that Baltimore lacked labor stability and the kind of productivity the consortium desired. The loss to Baltimore: possibly 25,000 containers a year.

The precarious labor scene also played a role in another steamship line, Yangming, deciding not to put Baltimore on its East Coast schedule. Adding to the bad news was the pending decision by Orient Overseas Container Line Ltd., a Hong Kong steamship line, to end its East Coast service . That would mean the loss of 4 percent of the public marine terminalsM-F container business in Baltimore, or about 150,000 tons of barged cargo.

Tricon's preference for Norfolk was especially harmful. The consortium of one South Korean an two German lines had been heavily lobbied to move into the ultra-modern Seagirt Marine Terminal, here. Previously, port officials had made a strong bid to persuade OOCL to set up operations at Seagirt. Now the prospects for attracting new steamship lines to the quarter-billion-dollar terminal are rapidly diminishing. Seagirt's potential for rejuvenating the port is being frittered away.

Eventually, steamship lines may be drawn to Seagirt by its cost-saving and time-saving conveniences. The port may also benefit from a container freight station being set up at the Dundalk Marine Terminal to provide on-dock processing of cargo. This might lead to quicker delivery and more jobs for dockworkers. But these are long-term propositions that will do little to remove the gloom now spreading over the port.

Until Baltimore can demonstrate the kind of labor harmony and cooperation shown by unions in Norfolk, selling this port to steamship lines will be an uphill battle. Mr. Hughes' intransigence, in particular, has proved disastrous. It will take hard work by other, more responsible leaders on the docks to overcome Baltimore's troubled reputation. The port's future could be in their hands.

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