Waiting for Work Port's improving fortunes mean little to longshoremen idled by automation

June 27, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

More ships are coming to the port of Baltimore these days, cargo levels are increasing, and the port's even grabbing some business from competitors such as Norfolk, Va., and Philadelphia.

But at the International Longshoremen's Association hiring hall in Highlandtown, such promising signs are barely noticeable.

Every day before 7 a.m., several hundred longshoremen arrive at the hall, lining up along a yellow cinder-block wall, in front of large letters that designate their seniority. On a typical day, 30 will be called for jobs -- some for only two and three hours -- that they once did every day.

While the longshoremen hope that the port's recent upswing will bring more steady work, they're really counting on something far more certain.

"It sounds a little morbid, but I'm waiting for people to die off or retire," said 37-year-old Bill Schreiner, a longshoreman who, with about 21 years experience, is considered a junior man on the docks. "Whenever anyone dies down here, the first thing anybody asks is, 'What was his seniority?' "

When he started on the docks, workers got hired on the piers, off the streets, out of bars -- day and night. "There weren't enough workers to go around," he said.

But times have changed.

Faced with automation, intense competition from other ports and a withering world economy, the ranks of longshoremen in Baltimore have dwindled to about 1,800, from more than 3,500 in the mid-1970s. Between 1982 and 1992, annual man-hours worked at the port plummeted to 2.3 million, from 5.5 million.

Lately, the port's fortunes have been improving. During the past year, several major shipping lines have expanded service through Baltimore, and others have begun calling. In total foreign commerce, Baltimore's rank among U.S. ports jumped to ninth, from 12th.

This year, cargo handled at state-owned terminals rose more than 3 percent during the first quarter. That marked the third straight quarter of growth at the port, which had steadily lost cargo for a half-dozen years prior to the turnaround in mid-1992.

Still, there has been no big jump in man-hours at the port. After a decade-long decline, man-hours rose slightly in 1992; they're expected to increase again this year.

"There are a lot more men out there than work," said Adrian G. Teel, head of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the port's public terminals. "Even though we stemmed the tide, it's not going back the way it was a decade ago."

With so little work to go around, jobs go to those with the most seniority.

The average seniority among the longshoremen with A and B seniority -- those who get steady work at the hiring hall -- is 30 years. Even with that much experience, they can't get regular work with the stevedore companies that hire gangs to load and unload ships. And even those who work regularly on a gang aren't guaranteed full-time work.

On a good day, the most senior longshoremen might fill in for regular work crews at Domino Sugar's refinery, where a guaranteed 10-hour day makes it "the sweetest work in the port," said Mr. Schreiner.

With two decades of experience, though, Mr. Schreiner is only an "H," just a couple of notches up from the bottom "J." The cargo handlers' Local 333, to which he belongs, hasn't accepted any new members since 1979.

Even to get sporadic work, he drives 30 minutes from his Edgewood home to the ILA hall on Oldham Street. If no work is available at 7, he'll wait a couple hours, leave, check back at noon, and often again at 6 p.m. Others remain, playing cards or sleeping through the day.

Hoping for 35 hours a week

Occasionally, Mr. Schreiner even comes back at midnight, hoping that a shipload of Toyotas or Subarus will mean six hours of work. Sometimes his tenacity pays off, netting him 35 hours a week. At other times, he'll get 10 hours for the same effort.

"At $21 an hour, I make a living," he said. "But sometimes I end up staying here six or seven hours to get two hours work."

The slide began about the time Mr. Schreiner quit high school and went to work at the docks in 1972. Automation had just begun; massive cranes started hoisting cargo off and on ships in huge metal containers.

Today, cranes and a dozen men can accomplish in six hours what it once took 100 longshoremen days to do, toting 100-pound boxes.

"Automation just killed us," Mr. Schreiner said.

To make things worse, the Baltimore's port lost significant amounts of cargo to Norfolk in the 1980s after the rail industry was deregulated. That allowed railroads to offer shippers the same rates in Norfolk and Baltimore, undermining Baltimore's natural advantage of being 150 miles closer to major Midwestern markets.

More recently, steamship companies, responding to a worldwide recession, have consolidated their cargo. That has meant fewer ships calling on ports such as Baltimore.

The decline is similar to that in the steel and automobile industries. But in one sense, longshoremen have fared much better.

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