Action by union could keep cargo at Baltimore port


August 12, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

In a move that could ensure further stability for the port of Baltimore, the president of the International Longshoremen's Association said yesterday that the union would likely seek a one- or two-year extension to its contract rather than renegotiate.

"The only real threat to stability at ports occurs when a contract is about to expire and no new agreement is in place," John W. Bowers, head of the 83,000-member ILA, told an international trade conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baltimore.

The union's master contract, which governs wage and pension benefits for ILA dockworkers throughout the nation, is due to expire in September 1994. But Mr. Bowers said the ILA was eager to resolve the new contract early so that shipping routes would not be disrupted and cargo diverted to nonunion ports.

In his remarks, Mr. Bowers joined the conference's other keynote speaker, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, in calling for fair trade policies.

"We don't appreciate foreign countries dumping their products, produced by low-paid or slave labor, in our markets while denying us access to theirs," said Mr. Bowers, who took over the ILA in 1987 after serving 24 years under the union's legendary Teddy Gleason.

"We demand fair trade," he said."We do not believe in free trade."

Ms. Tyson said the choice in international trade is not as simple as free trade vs. protectionism. "The choices are negotiating for freer trade and fairer trade," said the former University of California at Berkeley economics professor.

The goal, she said, is "more open markets abroad, not closing markets at home."

Mr. Bowers said an early resolution of the ILA's master contract would set a positive tone for dockworkers in Baltimore and elsewhere as they negotiate local contracts governing work rules and other issues. The contract for Baltimore's five ILA locals also expires in the fall of 1994.

Labor relations at the port of Baltimore are particularly sensitive. Baltimore's port was the only East Coast port to strike in 1990,after other ILA ports agreed to 14-month extensions of local contracts. The strike lasted three days and further tarnished the port's labor reputation.

During the past two years, however, labor relations have improved significantly -- a fact underscored repeatedly by business and labor at yesterday's conference, titled "Forging Parnerships -- International Trade in the '90s."

The gathering, sponsored by the Maryland Port Administration, featured panels composed of top industry leaders, as well as four of the ILA's top leaders in Baltimore.

"We couldn't have even had this conference four years ago," Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Maryland Republican and the conference moderator, told the 300 participants.

Local ILA leader Richard P. Hughes Jr., one of the panelists, predicted the ILA would avoid the strife that engulfed local negotiations in 1990. Talks are expected to begin this fall.

"We're going to make every attempt to settle peacefully," said Mr. Hughes, head of the clerks and checkers of Local 953, who was sharply criticized by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1990 as the local ILA leader most unwilling to compromise for the good of the port.

"Everybody is aware of the economic situation today," Mr. Hughes said.

One issue certain to be included in local negotiations will be the guaranteed annual income program that pays benefits when longshoremen cannot find work on the docks.

The union is expected to strenuously resist efforts by the Steamship Trade Association, which represents most of the employers on the docks, to reduce or eliminate the guaranteed income program. The program cost employers more than $11 million last year in Baltimore.

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