A union tries to stay afloat ILA feeling squeezed: As contract negotiations approach in Baltimore, the International Longshoremen's Association finds itself "in a crisis time."

April 14, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Once the ILA "owned" the docks from Maine to Texas, its dominance rarely challenged. Yet cutthroat competition from nonunion workers -- and even other unions -- has gradually chipped away at the big union's century-old stranglehold.

And the recent erosion of the ILA's power in Philadelphia has produced shock waves at other mid-Atlantic ports, nowhere stronger than on the docks of Baltimore, just 90 miles away.

"We're in a crisis time," said Ralph W. Judy, vice president of the International Longshoremen's Association, Local 333, who has worked the piers here for 23 years. "The competition is so stiff out there."

Indeed, as longshoreman here prepare to negotiate their first contract in five years, revolutionary changes in the shipping industry have left East Coast docks fair game as steamship lines consolidate their cargoes and stop at fewer ports.

Mergers and downsizing have created economic pressures, not

unlike those confronting millions of other American workers, blue-collar and white-collar alike. Longshoremen face perhaps the most serious threat to their livelihoods since automation battered their ranks three decades ago.

Employers want pay cuts and more flexibility on near-sacred work rules won on picket lines. That has left the ILA struggling to reshape itself, without abandoning its rank and file.

"We're not going to give away our union," Mr. Judy vowed. "What we're trying to do is prepare for the storm."

However, with the competition for cargo and jobs brutally intense, the union that once had the power to shut down ports and snarl world commerce, finds its solidarity fraying.

"The ILA locals are cutting each others' throats," said Scott S. Menzies, president of BalTerm, a Baltimore stevedoring firm that handles wood pulp and paper products.

"There's no loyalty between the ILA locals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk," he said. "They're out there making deals on the local issues.

Throughout the right-to-work South, dockworkers have seen their hourly rates fall to as low as $10 an hour, giving some Southern ports a 2-to-1 cost advantage. In Philadelphia, where the ILA was ousted from a private terminal, nonunion inroads have forced the ILA to cut its wages on some cargo by $3.50 an hour and to work the first standard nine-hour longshore work day in recent history.

"It's not that our brothers in Philadelphia are against us," said Mr. Judy. "They're doing what they have to to survive."

In an unprecedented, mid-contract decision here recently, Baltimore dockworkers voted overwhelmingly to cut their labor costs in order to keep a Dutch ship, loaded with 7,800 tons of steel, calling on Baltimore rather than Philadelphia.

The concession saved three days' work for 70 men. And it could foreshadow concessions that the ILA may be willing to make this summer when local talks begin.

"We have to put together a competitive package," said Richard P. Hughes, business agent for Local 953 and a longtime ILA leader who led a bitter walkout here in 1990. "The ILA doesn't have a monopoly anymore. In general, everything's tougher for organized labor."

Whether that conciliatory tone prevails during the traditionally turbulent negotiations remains to be seen. Yet, the outcome will be critical to the troubled port of Baltimore, which is headed for a certain downturn in cargo. Just last week Maersk Inc., one of the largest steamship carriers at the port, suspended its weekly South American service, raising fears that the Danish line also will pull its far bigger ships that sail to Europe. The loss of a huge container line would put even more pressure on the port of Baltimore to lure more break bulk cargo, such as wood pulp, fruit and steel.

"The issue is whether they're going to put Baltimore on a competitive playing field with other ports," said Mr. Menzies, whose company is one of the few growing businesses at the port. "This is the first time the ILA has really had the opportunity to respond to competitive pressure."

For steamship lines, labor costs -- determined by hourly wages ++ and work rules -- represent a significant factor in deciding which ports to use as they ship freight from one side of the world to the other.

Today, lines are less wedded to any particular port, often gravitating to those where they can find the lowest rail or truck rates to move the cargo to its ultimate destination. That has eroded what was the port of Baltimore's traditional advantage -- its inland location that once meant cheaper shipping costs to the Midwest.

Hourly work rates for handling containers are uniform, set through the national ILA negotiations for the more than 20 ports under ILA jurisdiction. Rates and work rules for handling break bulk cargo, however, are determined through local talks, which are to begin here this summer after the national negotiations conclude.

Currently, break bulk represents roughly one-third of the ocean freight moving through Baltimore. And for struggling ports, like Baltimore, such cargo will be increasingly critical.

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