Baltimore dockers weigh cut in crews ILA vote may serve as precedent to make port more competitive

March 27, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In a rare move, dockworkers at the port of Baltimore will decide tonight whether they should bend long-held work rules in an effort to cut costs and preserve cargo shipments that otherwise are certain to shift to Philadelphia.

The vote was called after the president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 agreed to reduce the size of the work gangs scheduled to unload a shipment of 7,800 tons of steel, due here Tuesday from Antwerp, Belgium.

Tonight's meeting will determine if union members will consent to continue the practice with the Dutch steamship company bringing in the steel.

If approved, other steamship companies might be expected to seek a similar concession.

The vote reflects the powerful competitive forces at work among East Coast ports, where similar deals are becoming more common.

"The cargo's leaving the port," said William Schnowski, president of Local 333, which represents about 1,200 cargo handlers. "The alternative is to make some kind of labor reduction. The choice is no cargo at all."

By agreeing to reduce the gang size from 13 to 11 in the steel shipment due Tuesday, Mr. Schnowski gave ground on what has been a bedrock of the ILA here. "This is certainly something very unusual at our port," Mr. Schnowski said.

The change already has generated controversy among ILA members, who argue that mandated gang sizes -- which vary according to the type of cargo -- are appropriate.

"It's going to be a tumultuous meeting [tonight]," said one dockworker who asked not to be identified. "Obviously this would set a precedent. But I don't think we have a choice."

Historically, gang sizes and hourly wages for general cargo are negotiated by the ILA locals while labor costs for containerized cargo are governed by a national contract.

Mr. Schnowski's move is a response to cut-throat competition along the East Coast, where ILA members from port to port have begun undercutting each other's costs in a bid to win general cargo, such as steel and wood pulp.

In Philadelphia, for instance, dockworkers have sharply reduced their hourly wages and gang sizes for non-containerized cargo. In addition, a growing number of lower paid, non-union workers there have siphoned off work.

Shipping industry officials in Baltimore have long complained that inflexible gang sizes drive up labor costs, and the issue is expected to be a focal point of the ILA's contract negotiations this summer.

The recent concession by Local 333 -- and a similar concession by ILA Local 953, whose members handle the paperwork for cargo -- could foreshadow a different way of doing business at the port, one that the employers and others say is desperately needed.

"This situation is critical for the steamship line, the port of Baltimore, management and labor," said Robert Herb, president of Terminal Shipping Co. Inc., the agent representing Van

Ommeren, the Dutch steamship company that currently provides the only significant, regularly scheduled shipment of steel to Baltimore.

"If the labor reduction is not made, this line will not return to Baltimore," he said. Without the concession, the Dutch firm would switch to Philadelphia, he said.

Van Ommeren's shipment Tuesday is the port's largest in two years and nearly three times as big as the company's typical monthly shipment. The ship will provide 25 hours of work for dozens of longshoremen.

XTC The potential loss of Van Ommeren's service comes shortly after Cooper T./Smith, a nationally prominent stevedoring agency, abruptly ceased operations at the North Locust Point marine terminal with complaints that costs here are too high.

ITO Corp., one of two major remaining stevedoring agencies in the port, is currently handling the freight that was en route to the terminal when Cooper T./Smith left.

With benefits and wages estimated at nearly $50 an hour per man, a difference of one or two workers can make a dent in a steamship company's costs. Typically large ships employ three or four gangs.

After losing cargo during the late 1980s and early 1990s to other ports, Baltimore had begun to regain much of the tonnage. In 1994 and 1995, the volume of cargo handled at the state's five public terminals topped 6 million tons, with a fourth of that general cargo.

But alarming signs -- including the anticipated departure of Maersk Line, one of the port's largest shipping companies -- has sparked new concerns about the port's future.

"The men certainly know the danger of cargo and shipping lines leaving the port," said Mr. Schnowski. "I'm going to give them the full story of where we are. I'm confident they'll make the right decision. I don't believe they'll say, 'Let it go.' "

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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