Unionist voted chairman of port business panel

December 23, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Richard P. Hughes Jr., once the embodiment of the militant unionism that tarnished the port of Baltimore's image, has been elected chairman of the Private Sector Committee, an influential advisory group composed largely of port business leaders.

As much as any single event during the past two years, Mr. Hughes' election Friday symbolizes the gradual, yet dramatic improvement in labor-management relations at the once strife-ridden port.

It was the first time a labor representative has headed the group. Indeed, Mr. Hughes for a long time was deeply suspicious of joint ventures between labor and management.

As head of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association, Mr. Hughes led the port's 450 clerks and checkers, who handle the port's paperwork, in a bitter two-day strike in December 1990. The walkout by Local 953 came just 10 months after a strike by all five ILA locals in Baltimore. The December walkout occurred even as Longshoremen at other East Coast ports had agreed to contract extensions.

The Hughes-led strike was seen by state officials as a devastating blow to the port's attempt to convince the shipping industry that Baltimore had resolved its labor problems. Gov. William Donald Schaefer bitterly denounced Mr. Hughes, blaming him for the loss of jobs.

But yesterday, Governor Schaefer praised Mr. Hughes, as he has done repeatedly in recent months, for "exercising great leadership on behalf of the ILA."

"This great sense of cooperation at the port is the best way to keep and create jobs," Mr. Schaefer said.

After losing business to Norfolk, Va., and other ports for more than a half-dozen years, Baltimore's cargo has increased during the past 18 months. The improved relationship between management and labor reflects a joint recognition that the disharmony had cost the port of Baltimore cargo and jobs.

"We're more cooperative, more understanding of each other's concerns," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents many of the port's employers. "This [Mr. Hughes' election] is certainly significant."

For the past year, Mr. Hughes served as vice chairman of the Private Sector Committee. His election to the one-year term as chairman had been expected. Mr. Hughes could not be reached for comment this week.

In September, Baltimore's 1,700 Longshoremen handily approved a two-year contract extension, avoiding potentially difficult negotiations and ensuring further stability at the port.

A month later, ILA representatives attended the state's annual luncheon for steamship executives in New York. Labor had avoided the event since 1989, when Mr. Schaefer lashed out at ILA International President John W. Bowers about labor unrest.

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