Stevedoring company is closing here Cooper/T. Smith announcement is latest blow to port

Equals loss of 100 jobs

State, labor officials are holding out hope of reversing decision

March 15, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Cooper/T. Smith, a nationally prominent stevedoring company, is closing its operation here, in the latest in a series of blows at the port of Baltimore that foreshadows a sharp downturn in the coming year.

The Mobile, Ala.-based company which hires longshoremen to load and unload steamships began operations here two years ago, saying it hoped to attract cargo that would produce more jobs for the port.

But recently, the company told state officials it would not renew its lease at the North Locust Point marine terminal. The lease expires next week.

Company officials could not be reached for comment, but maritime leaders indicated that Cooper/T. Smith could not lure enough cargo to Baltimore and that its costs including labor and its lease payments to the Maryland Port Administration were too high.

MPA and labor officials said yesterday they're still negotiating with the company, hoping to reverse the decision that has effectively shut down operations at North Locust Point, one of the port's smaller terminals.

The decision by Cooper/T. Smith, however, could mean the loss of 100,000 man-hours a year the equivalent of full-time work for roughly 100 longshoremen if the steamship lines handled by the company shift their cargo through another port, as expected. Particularly significant would be the loss of imported steel a cargo in which Baltimore had hoped to excel as it faces increasingly tough competition from other ports, such as Norfolk, Va., and Philadelphia.

"Clearly, they [Cooper] will try to take the business with them to some other port," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the MPA, the state agency that operates North Locust Point and four other terminals. "We, on the other hand, will try to retain that

business."

The loss of Cooper would further erode competition among stevedores whose rates and services help draw steamship lines. Currently, there are only two other major firms at the port in contrast to nearly 20 that once operated here.

"This is not a good message to be sending out to the rest of the maritime community, that a company is leaving our port," said Bill Schnowski, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents about 1,500 cargo handlers at the port.

Negative trend at port

But it is not the first such message the port has received lately, with consolidation in the shipping industry prompting stark changes in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Last year, Navieras, a major Puerto Rican steamship, ended its weekly service to Baltimore. And Maersk Line one of the port's two largest carriers, which operates more than 120 ships a year here is expected to eliminate or sharply reduce service here because of its alliance with Sea-Land Service Inc.

The downturn is particularly disappointing for the port, which had experienced a comeback after losing substantial cargo to Hampton Roads in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the decision by Cooper reflects growing difficulties in attracting and retaining cargo.

"They [Cooper/T. Smith] have not been able to make it thus far, attracting ships and cargo," Mr. Yoshitani said yesterday. "It's as simple as that. Their revenues are not as high as expected and their costs are too high relative to the level of business they're getting."

Both the MPA and the ILA leaders expressed hope that Cooper/T. Smith would reverse its decision.

A meeting with top company officials is scheduled here next week.

"They want to talk with us and we're willing to listen," said Mr. Schnowski. "We do want them to stay. We're willing to listen and make some adjustment."

What Cooper did here

In Baltimore, Cooper/T.Smith handled cargo carried by two major steamship lines, Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. Inc. and Safbank Line, and for several smaller lines.

The privately held company, operated by the third generation of the Cooper family, operates at most ports between Virginia and Florida, and many along the Gulf of Mexico and on the West Coast.

Cooper/T. Smith leased terminal space and cranes from the MPA, then provided other equipment, such as forklifts, and hired longshoreman gangs to load and unload cargo. North Locust Point, which has one container crane and four modern deep-water berths, is known as a particularly good terminal for handling break bulk cargo, such as steel. Steel shippers, favorably impressed with Cooper/ T. Smith, had begun sending more steel through the port.

Mr. Yoshitani said the terms of the existing lease, calculated partly on volume, were "favorable or more favorable" than those with other stevedores.

Complaints about labor costs

Mr. Schnowski said the firm, "like all companies," had complained about labor costs. "But the amount of men they have on payroll is exactly what we're entitled to," he said.

The size of labor gangs throughout the port is expected to be one of the more volatile issues during ILA contract negotiations this summer. Employers complain frequently that an unnecessarily high number of men drives up labor costs.

"The indications are that we should look at how we do business and what the cost of doing business in Baltimore is. That means all parties," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents three dozen major employers in the port. "The competition in our industry is fierce."

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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