Future of port's hiring hall in doubt Goal is to cut costs, yet some fear for jobs

March 27, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

To cut administrative costs, management in the port of Baltimore is considering closing the dockworkers hiring hall, a move opposed by some union members who say the hall affords low-seniority workers their best and often only chance of scraping up hard-to-find work.

Each morning, Baltimore dockworkers gather at the hall on Oldham Street in Highlandtown to register their availability for work, a process they call "badging in." Because there is not enough work to go around, many do not find jobs. Even if they know they will not find jobs, they still must badge in to fulfill the requirements of the port's guaranteed annual income program, which pays benefits to underemployed dockworkers.

The badging-in requirement has long been a source of irritation for many longshoremen, who resent the rules requiring them to report to the hiring hall to look for work even on days when it is clear there are no jobs to be had.

With one union local, management has instituted a telephone reporting system that eliminates the need for participants to report in person each day. The Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represents management in the port, would like to extend the telephone reporting system to other International Longshoremen's Association locals.

If all the ILA locals agree to the telephone system, management could eliminate the administrative costs of running the hiring hall.

Maurice C. Byan, president of the STA, confirmed yesterday that his organization would like to institute a portwide telephone reporting system for all the ILA locals, but he declined to provide details until he has had a chance to discuss the proposal with union leaders.

"I'm not prepared to get into it," he said. "We haven't really discussed it with the unions."

The clerks and checkers of Local 953, who have a contract separate from that of the other four ILA locals, agreed to the telephone reporting system as part of what Mr. Byan termed a "pilot program." Mr. Byan said that union leaders would have to agree before management would expand the system.

Getting such an agreement may be difficult, however, given the opposition of some longshoremen, especially those with the least seniority who have the hardest time finding work. They fear a telephone system would leave them out in the cold, since they expect the calls would go to the more senior workers.

Under the present system, a determined low-seniority worker can often find work by hanging around the hall at hours higher-seniority people would not consider.

"It's not going to benefit me," Charles Klebe, a member of Local 333, said of the proposed telephone reporting system.

Mr. Klebe, 36, has been a longshoreman since 1978. He said he spends six or seven days a week at the hiring hall. He usually arrives at about 6 a.m. and may stay as late as 2 a.m. Despite those long hours, he has logged only 160 hours of work since the beginning of October. At this rate, he will not even get medical benefits, since a longshoreman must work at least 700 hours a year to qualify.

Despite the long hours and lack of work, he keeps coming back. "Where else am I going to go?" he said.

Another reason for coming is a union pension, which may be just out of reach for some workers despite years on the waterfront.

Tyrone Williams, 39, has been working on the docks since 1978. During that time he has had nine "good years" in which he worked more than 700 hours. He needs 10 good years to be vested for a pension, he said. Last year, he managed only 34 hours. In the first six months of the contract year that begins in October, he has logged 53 hours. "Bad years don't get counted for a pension," he said.

But he says he can't afford to walk away from the docks after more than a decade. "I've got too much time invested down here," he said.

The hiring hall, Mr. Williams said, is his only hope for finding work.

In view of the importance of the halls for dockworkers with little seniority, management may have a hard time getting union leaders to agree to the telephone registration system. "It can't happen without the approval of the leaders. I don't approve of it at all," said Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, vice president of the cargo handlers of Local 333, which represents more than 60 percent of the longshoremen in the port.

He too believes closing the hall would kill what little chance low-seniority people have of finding work. "The older and senior guys aren't going to come back later in the day. That's when these guys have a chance," he said.

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