ILA heads, management OK contract Longshoremen to vote Oct. 2 on 5-year national agreement

'Offers stability'

Pact raises salary, but replaces health plan, cuts size of work gang


September 18, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association and management representatives yesterday reached agreement on an unprecedented, five-year contract governing thousands of dockworkers from Maine to Texas.

The package -- which goes to the ILA's rank and file for ratification on Oct. 2 -- includes a phased-in $4-an-hour wage increase to $25 an hour, a reduction in the mandatory size of gangs that load and unload containers and a cost-cutting health insurance plan.

Details are expected to be announced today in New York, where the ILA and management leaders are meeting. The current contract expires Sept. 30.

"It's an unprecedented long-term agreement that offers stability to the ILA and the industry," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association in Baltimore, which represent roughly three dozen port employers here.

Since 1992, the hourly ILA wage for handling containers has been $21, although the majority of Baltimore's 1,400 dock workers rarely work a 40-hour week. As a result, benefits and measures to protect jobs have become far more important to many longshoremen than pay increases.

Employers, on the other hand, have pushed for more flexibility in work rules and a reduction in the size of work gangs, which they insist unnecessarily drive up the cost of loading and unloading ships. They also have sought to reduce the union's generous health and pension benefits.

Governing two dozen ports, the master contract agreement reached yesterday is the first since 1991 and is the culmination of more than a year of negotiations. It comes amid revolutionary changes in the shipping industry as steamship lines continue to form alliances, consolidating their cargoes on larger ships and stopping at fewer ports.

Despite the five-year term of the agreement, the ILA rank and file are likely to balk at the provisions trimming the size of work gangs and changing health benefits. But the cutthroat competition among ports and the influx of nonunion workers makes a strike improbable.

ILA locals and management in the individual ports still must reach agreements on local contracts. Those talks will deal with thorny issues such as the Guaranteed Annual Income -- the program that assures most dock workers in Baltimore and several other ports a minimum $30,000 income. The local pacts also expire Sept. 30.

"We're hoping to reach an agreement by then," Byan said last night.

Local ILA leaders could not be reached for comment.

Since the early 1970s, the hourly labor rate for moving the huge steel boxes, known as containers, has been set through a master contract, but the wage for handling break-bulk cargo, such as steel and fruit, has been determined by ILA locals from port to port.

Historically, ILA locals have set their break-bulk rates at the same level as containers, or $21 an hour for the past three years. But, amid growing competition for cargo, ILA locals from port to port have been undercutting each other, with some setting break-bulk rates as low as $16 an hour.

In Philadelphia, for instance, the ILA lowered its break-bulk rates to $18 an hour, pressuring the port of Baltimore, which has a $21-an-hour rate.

In an effort to restore ILA solidarity and prevent ports from undercutting each other, ILA President John W. Bowers is seeking a uniform labor rate for handling break-bulk cargo. Union leaders and management are expected to meet on that issue today.

The outcome of those talks could be critical to the port of Baltimore, which is losing containerized cargo and is targeting break-bulk in an effort to save jobs.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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