ILA to seek uniform rate on bulk cargo Union chief wants single East Coast wage in next contract

Break bulk isn't covered now

Situation was forced as Philadelphia local undercut other ports

August 08, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In a move that could ease the growing cutthroat competition among North Atlantic ports, the president of the International Longshoremen's Association says he will seek a uniform labor rate for handling break bulk cargo in the North Atlantic ports.

John W. Bowers, head of the 65,000-member union, said yesterday that he will make the proposal in September to local ILA leaders when they meet in New York to resolve terms of a new three-year master contract governing wages and other benefits.

Since the early 1970s, the hourly labor rate for moving containers has been set through a master contract covering longshoremen from Maine to Texas, but the rate for handling break bulk, such as steel and fruit, is determined by ILA locals from port to port.

Traditionally, most ILA locals have set their break bulk rates at the same level as containers -- or $21 an hour since 1992.

But in recent years, with competition for cargo intensifying on the East Coast, ILA locals have been making their own individual deals with employers but without setting a general rate.

But faced with growing competition from nonunion workers, the ILA in Philadelphia has lowered its break bulk rates to $18 an hour, undermining the ILA's East Coast solidarity and putting ports like Baltimore, which has a $21-an-hour rate, at a disadvantage.

"Philadelphia is destroying everybody, especially Baltimore," said Bowers. "These ports are trying to eat each other up by undercutting each other."

Bowers was among those attending yesterday's fourth annual international trade conference, sponsored by the Maryland Port Administration. The session also drew several hundred other business and maritime leaders as well as keynote speaker Martin A. Kamarck, president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank.

Baltimore port officials' recent plan to attract more break bulk cargo called for lower bulk rates. Labor costs are one of the key factors used by shippers and steamship lines in determining which ports they will use.

Local maritime executives have been pushing hard for a reduction in the current rate. Scott S. Menzies, president of BalTerm, which handles wood pulp and forest products, said yesterday that a uniform rate might "level the playing field." But others were skeptical that a uniform rate could offset the growing pressure from non-ILA workers, such as those in Philadelphia who are working for $12 an hour.

"We would be willing to discuss anything that makes us more competitive," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which negotiates for three dozen employers at the port. "If the ILA had the exclusivity that it did in the '70s, it could work, but it [uniform rate] doesn't address the issue of non-union competition."

Labor leaders are hoping that uniform rates, while not expected to be nearly as low as non-union wages, would be attractive to employers when combined with ILA's experience and productivity.

The ILA here recently showed a willingness to cut a deal on break bulk, agreeing to reduce its labor costs to keep a Dutch ship, carrying 7,800 tons of steel, from shifting to Philadelphia.

But union leaders fear that a lower, across-the-board break bulk rate, solely for the port of Baltimore, would simply be undercut by Philadelphia or other ports.

"A uniform rate is really necessary. Let's set the rate and stick to it," said William Schonowski, president of Local 333, the cargo handlers union that represents 1,200 workers.

Both the national and local ILA contracts expire Sept. 30. Negotiations on a master contract have been going on for months at the national level.

Local union leaders and employer representatives have met several times on issues, such as the mandatory size of gangs that load and unload ships. But no substantial movement is expected until after the master contract is final.

The recent outcome of the longshoremen's negotiations on the West Coast could weigh heavily in East Coast talks.

West Coast dockworkers -- who have far more clout than East Coast workers because of the heavy volume of cargo there -- won substantial benefit and wage increases in June that would push a typical longshoreman's annual earnings close to $90,000 by the end of the three-year pact. By comparison, East Coast workers today average $45,000 to $50,000 a year.

Management has already warned ILA leaders that such terms are unrealistic among East Coast ports. But ILA leaders yesterday insisted that the West Coast contract had laid the groundwork for them. "It's the same employers, the same shippers on both coasts," Bowers said.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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