ILA likely to OK contract extension Two-year deal should assure stability at port

September 25, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Baltimore's 1,700 Longshoremen are expected to easily approve next week a two-year contract extension that should ensure continued stability at the once strife-ridden port.

Under the extension, members of the International Longshoremen's Association nationwide would forgo a scheduled $1-an-hour wage increase, which would have raised their pay to $22 an hour. Instead, the money would go into local ILA pension and health benefit plans.

"We don't like giving up the dollar, but we're not giving it back since it will go directly in our benefits fund," said Ed Berke, president of ILA Local 333, which represents 1,100 cargo handlers and is the largest of the port's five Longshoremen locals.

Mr. Berke predicted the extension would be approved "by a large majority" when Longshoremen vote Tuesday on the master contract -- approved this week in New York by officers of the international association -- and on the local contract. Both are scheduled to expire Oct. 1, 1994, but would be extended until 1996, if approved.

"This certainly affords us two more years of continued stability," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents employers.

The contract extension, however, left unchanged the historically thorny issue of the ILA's guaranteed annual income program, under which steamship companies pay benefits when Longshoremen cannot find work on the docks.

Last year alone, the welfare fund, unique to Longshoremen, cost the steamship companies $12 million, according to Mr. Byan.

The contract extension was approved recently by the Council of North Atlantic Shipping Associations, which represents steamship companies at the ports of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Hampton Roads, Va.

The apparent ease in extending the ILA contract contrasts sharply with the hostility that surrounded contract negotiations four years ago. In Baltimore, a breakdown in the 1989 negotiations led to a three-day strike, even as locals at other East Coast ports reached agreements.

In large measure, the current conciliatory mood stems from a changed and troubled economy.

"I think this is the best agreement we could get at this time because of the economy and the global situation," Mr. Berke said yesterday.

With more consolidation in the shipping industry, carriers have combined their cargo and are reducing the number of ships calling at a port. With fewer ships to unload, longshoremen jobs have dwindled at some ports. In addition, automation has long been eroding the ILA ranks.

In a speech in Baltimore last month, John W. Bowers, president of the 83,000-member ILA, said the union was eager to resolve the new contract early so that shipping routes would not be disrupted with cargo diverted to non-union ports.

The ILA's health and pension benefits cover the 1,700 active Longshoremen and 2,000 pensioners in Baltimore. Mr. Berke said that, because the ILA's pension pool here was well-funded, the $1-an-hour cumulative wage savings would be funneled into health benefits.

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