NEW YORK -- Leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association were absent yesterday when Gov. William Donald Schaefer delivered his annual speech to the maritime industry in New York, but their influence was at the heart of claims that the port's prospects have brightened because of an improved labor climate.
Two years ago, they were present when Governor Schaefer angered ILA President John Bowers by criticizing port labor. That was the opening salvo is a running battle between the state and the ILA that included two strikes within a year.
While the rift between Mr. Schaefer and the union is far from healed, the ILA and the state have worked out an uneasy truce that seems to be holding -- to the benefit of the port.
"Baltimore's had a tough time," the governor acknowledged yesterday. But he said great strides have been made. Of his relations with the union, he said, "Whether they like it or not, they've got to work with me. I've got to work with them."
As evidence of the port's progress, he cited the recent decision of Orient Overseas Container Line, a big Hong Kong-based steamship company, to resume direct vessel calls to the port of Baltimore. He credited Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, with helping persuade OOCL to return to Baltimore.
Mrs. Bentley, who was in the audience, said that OOCL had asked her for assurances that labor in Baltimore "would keep working and be productive."
She said she received those assurances from the heads of the two biggest ILA locals in Baltimore, Richard P. Hughes Jr., leader of the clerks and checkers of Local 953, and Edward Burke, president of the longshoremen of Local 333.
O. James Lighthizer, secretary of transportation, who introduced the governor, said, "I'm not going to stand here and say we're home free, out of the woods." But he said that the port of Baltimore had begun show signs of turning the corner.
One steamship line executive who asked not to be identified because of his company's policy said that the port has become more attractive in the last year or so primarily because of the improved labor climate. Had that climate not improved, his line would not call at Baltimore, he said.
"That's the biggest change, labor," said another executive from the same line.
While the relationship between the union and the state is less than warm, the cooperation is real, the Maryland Port Administration's deputy director, Michael Angelos, said. "There's a mutual understanding of the interdependence. We both need each other to be successful. You do what you need to do for survival by necessity," Mr. Angelos said.
The state port agency spent about $10,000 on the luncheon, which included crab, shrimp, filet mignon and wine for about 150 steamship line officials, shippers and other transportation industry executives. The New York luncheons have been an annual part of the port's promotion efforts for about 35 years, according to port officials, although the presence of the governor at the event is an innovation started by Mr. Schaefer three years ago. Most of the major shipping lines have their U.S. headquarters in the New York area.
William A. Romberger, head of Baltimore International Warehousing, a warehouse and trucking company, defended the expense at a time when the state is laying off thousands of workers to stem its mounting budget deficit.
The cost, he said, represented a small but necessary investment he believes will pay itself back many times over in economic benefits to the state's economy. Failure to hold the luncheon would have sent out the wrong signal just when the port is showing signs of recovery, Mr. Romberger argued.
"Either you're a player in the game or you go home," he said.
That view was supported by Krzysztof A. Tyc, senior owners representative of Polish Ocean Lines, one of the biggest lines calling at the port. The governor's appearance, he said, helped to convey a sense that the state was committed to the port's performance, something he said was not always the case elsewhere.
"It makes you more confident. You expect the port to perform," he said. "I've experienced the full support of the state. That's very important.
"It's not a waste," he said of the luncheon.