Longshoremen shoulder hit-or-miss livelihood THE HIDDEN PORT

October 16, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

To glimpse a tough, erratic workweek, follow Milton Krajewski.

Every afternoon at 4 o'clock he calls a tape-recorded message to find out whether he will have a job the next day. If not, he will show up at 7 in the morning at an empty shell of a building -- known as the hiring hall -- and wait two hours, hoping to grab a job that might last four hours.

When that doesn't pan out, he drives his blue Chevy S-10 pickup home and waits, returning to the hall at noon, then 6 o'clock or midnight, all in the hope that something comes along to help patch together a respectable paycheck.

For Mr. Krajewski, this isn't just a bad week. It's a way of life.

With only 13 years experience on Baltimore's docks, the 39-year-old longshoreman is a Johnny-come- lately to a dying profession.

"I'm the last of the breed," he said. "With my seniority, it's very rare I get a job in the morning unless the port is super busy."

Indeed, even longshoremen with twice his experience can't depend on regular work. Over the years, automation, competition from other ports and a changing world economy have meant less and less work for dockworkers who load and unload cargo at the port of Baltimore. Since the mid-1970s, the ranks of longshoremen have dwindled nearly two-thirds, to 1,500 from 4,000. With so little work to go around, jobs go first to those with 30 or 35 years seniority -- As and Bs as they're known at the hiring hall on Oldham street in Highlandtown.

Milton Krajewski is a J.

"It's just a tough life and it's getting tougher all the time," said Mattie Capp, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association. "Technology's put a hurtin' on us."

But Mr. Krajewski is a hustler -- affectionately dubbed a "pier rat" by his frequent partner, Glenn Young. "I take any job that comes down the pike whether it's hard or dirty," said Mr. Krajewski, who wears a beard and wire-rimmed glasses. "To make a decent living, you have to make yourself constantly available."

When there's work, he leaves his home in Overlea and heads down Interstate 95 to the docks. Some days, he unloads cars; other days, he drives a truck. More often than not, he's a climber on one of the huge vessels, like Evergreen's Ever Gentry, which docked at the port three weeks ago.

Shortly after the ship arrived, he was lifted on a grate attached to a crane to the top of the containers, stacked five high on the ship's deck. Walking gingerly along a narrow ledge along the container, he unlocks the metal clamps, or "shoes," that connect the boxes to each other and prevent them from tumbling off the ships at sea.

Once a tier of containers is released, the 210-pound dockworker jumped down to the next level to repeat the job. With 265 `D containers to unload, Mr. Krajewski and his gang worked eight hours.

His is among the most dangerous work at the port. A light drizzle on the docks can coat the steel boxes with a thin sheet of ice, making them perilously slippery. During last winter's ice storms, Mr. Krajewski literally crawled along the huge metal boxes, wearing winter boots and an insulated Refrigerwear suit.

"Winter gets pretty severe," he said. "You're right on the water all the time. It's bitter."

Occasionally, a 30-ton box will shift suddenly from a gust of wind. Or it will tilt because of an unexpected movement of the crane. Climbers have been crushed to death. Two years ago, one climber, about to be knocked off, jumped 70 feet into the Patapsco River from the top of a stack of containers.

Fully clothed, the man swam to the bow of the ship, where fellow workers tossed him a life ring. He never returned to the job of climbing, Mr. Krajewski said.

"You think about [the danger] all the time, not so much when you're up there but when you're at home," he said.

So far, he's been careful -- if not lucky -- suffering nothing more serious than a broken toe and a broken finger. And the work is often as dirty as it is dangerous.

Recently, he lashed cargo on an Indian ship with steel-stranded roping that had been lubricated with grease. "When I got home I wrapped my clothes up and threw them away," he said. "Then it took me a half hour just to get the grease off my body so I could take a shower."

For his work, Mr. Krajewski earns $21 an hour, or $31.50 an hour for overtime. "If this were an easy, eight-hour-a-day job, they wouldn't be paying me $21 an hour," he said.

Last year, his income topped $35,000, enabling him to support his family -- including his wife, Agnieszka, a former teacher in Poland, and their sons David, 6, and Timothy, 4. Their three-bedroom, brick Colonial on a quiet cul-de-sac in Northeast Baltimore is half paid for. His older son attends St. Clements Catholic school.

"The port's been good to me and my family," he said.

But the trade-off is insecurity -- and uncertainty.

"It's always if, if, if," said Mrs. Krajewski. "You can never plan."

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