Brighter outlook for the port

January 07, 1992

Having come through three depressed years, the Port of Baltimore may experience an upswing in 1992. A number of factors indicate that the port's worst problems may finally be ending. The loss of cargo to other ports may have leveled off.

For once, the New Year began with labor, management and the state working in harmony. Instead of strike threats from leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association, there was talk of seeking consensus and becoming an active participant in shaping future port moves. Nor was the Maryland Port Administration in a belligerent state of mind. New port director Adrian Teel has opened up lines of communications that have smoothed over the confrontations of the past.

Teel came to the job last year with no maritime expertise. But contrary to most expectations, this has turned out to be a decided advantage. He was not involved in any of the port's past difficulties; he brought no preconceived notions to his job, and he quickly disabused labor leaders of any notion that he intended to take over operation of the public terminals. Teel also overhauled his own staff, cutting 72 people, and reorganized his operations to make them more efficient.

Meanwhile, the new labor-management spirit of cooperation was instrumental in convincing key steamship lines to commit themselves to Baltimore. The giant Maersk Lines signed an unprecedented 10-year lease, arranged to privatize a large section of the Dundalk Marine Terminal and formed a cargo hub in Baltimore to serve South American ports. Another big shipper, Orient Overseas Container Line, announced its return to Baltimore after a hiatus of seven years. The ultra-modern Seagirt Marine Terminal, combined with new labor cooperation, began to pay dividends in terms of faster service for shippers.

An increase in cargo business would have several beneficial effects. It would help the state end its budget deficit at the port. It would also help the longshoremen's union put more of its members back to work, and it would ease the strain on management of onerous contributions to the Guaranteed Annual Income fund that pays longshoremen when they are idle.

Baltimore's port is an economic engine for the entire region, and an upturn in cargo activity would pump new life into Maryland's moribund economy. Recent news from the port suggests that this could be the year for Baltimore to bounce back from its past misfortunes on the waterfront.

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