Employers of dockworkers have won a crucial decision from a federal arbitrator in a dispute that threatened to raise labor costs in the port of Baltimore.
In another development affecting the costs of doing business in the port, a Public Service Commission hearing examiner has said that the Maryland Bay Pilots can raise their rates about 20 percent over three years. The pilots originally requested a 33 percent increase over three years.
In a ruling dated Aug. 27, arbitrator Jerome H. Ross rejected a complaint by Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association that employers have unfairly distributed work among work gangs in the port in a manner that prevented many workers from qualifying for the guaranteed annual income program, which pays benefits to underemployed dockworkers.
The benefit fund is financed by an employer assessment that is a basic part of the hourly cost of employing a longshoremen in the port. That assessment is currently $3.75 for each hour worked by a Baltimore longshoreman.
A union victory in the dispute would have increased the number of longshoremen who would have been eligible for GAI benefits next year. That would probably have forced the employers to increase their assessment, effectively raising the cost of labor in Baltimore compared with competing ports, especially archrival Hampton Roads, Va., which has no GAI assessment.
Gil A. Abramsam, the attorney representing employers in the case, hailed the decision as good news for the port of Baltimore. "This is a good thing. It's going to let the contract do what it's supposed to do," he said.
Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, a vice president of Local 333, refused to comment on the decision until he had more time to study it.
Under the contract agreement reached with the ILA earlier this year, eligibility rules for GAI benefits were tightened. As a consequence of those tighter rules, about 150 longshoremen were dropped from the GAI rolls during the first year of the new four-year contract. The union's demand that more work be assigned to currently idle gangs would have reduced the number dropped from the rolls next year and in subsequent years.
David L. Bindler, chairman of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., an employers group, said that his organization decided Thursday to keep the GAI assessment at $3.75. Although that decision was not directly related to the arbitration ruling, he said: "We don't want an increase. It would be bad for the port if we had one."
The PSC hearing examiner's decision came as no surprise because it was in accord with a compromise worked out between the pilots and the PSC staff before the hearing last week.
The increase will go into effect at the end of September unless the hearing examiner's proposed order is appealed or the full commission objects.
Roy A. Schleicher, head of the Maryland Maritime Association, which represents steamship lines and their agents, said that while his group opposed any increase in the rates charged by bay pilots, he was pleased that the PSC decided not to give the pilots their full request. "It's not a victory and it's not a defeat," he said.
The pilots would be able in increase rates 8 percent this year and next and 3 percent in the third year. That compares with the pilots' original request of about 10 percent in each of the three years.