Fruit, cars, steel and lumber Port targets: Baltimore looks to niche cargo, with help from longshoremen's union.

August 12, 1996

"RO/RO" and "break bulk" are headed Baltimore's way, if the Maryland Port Administration gets what it wants. To those unfamiliar with these maritime shipping terms, the local port intends to position itself as the East Coast's premier destination for roll on/roll off cargo -- cars, trucks and farm equipment. It also seeks to exploit break bulk cargo -- stuff that is easily damaged (broken) or too bulky to be shipped in trailer-sized containers. That includes bananas and other fruits, lumber and steel.

This port could get a big boost toward its goals if the International Longshoremen's Association gains a uniform wage rate for handling break bulk cargo in North Atlantic ports. John W. Bowers, who leads the 65,000-member union, said this week at a trade conference in Baltimore that he wants such a provision included in a new labor contract next month. He sees trouble ahead if ILA members in ports such as Philadelphia undercut fellow longshoremen to win discount shipments.

The ILA's master contract for the eastern U.S. sets a uniform rate for cargo moved in containers. ILA locals, though, set the break bulk rates. That's where the price-cutting has erupted, leading to a potentially nasty round of internal strife between ILA locals. A uniform break bulk rate would help Baltimore lure business here based on its proximity to the Midwest, superior road connections, rapid loading and unloading of cargo and a well-deserved reputation for avoiding damage to those sometimes fragile, sometimes bulky items.

At the same time, port director Tay Yoshitani has mapped plans to expand storage parking space near the docks to accommodate many more autos and other ro/ro cargo. The port also must build additional storage sheds for lumber and break bulk cargo, including a freezer shed for perishables.

All this will take a considerable commitment from the Glendening administration, but also from the port community, especially the railroads and the ILA. Mr. Yoshitani's strategic plan has generated enthusiasm among maritime leaders. He has come up with a vision for this port's future that could signal a welcome period of rapid growth in specialty cargo.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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