Longshoremen eager to keep pay guarantee Leader of local links minimum income with vote for master contract

Work gangs are cut by 3

Baltimore dockworkers still to negotiate local agreements

The port

September 20, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The head of Baltimore's largest longshoremen's local says dockworkers will likely approve a new five-year master contract -- including a controversial measure cutting the size of work gangs -- only if they can preserve the guaranteed annual income (GAI) fund.

National leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association reached agreement earlier this week on an unprecedented five-year pact that includes a phased-in $4-an-hour wage increase, to $25 an hour.

ILA locals and management in individual ports must still negotiate their local contracts, however.

The master agreement, governing two dozen ports and thousands of dockworkers from Maine to Texas, calls for reducing by three the minimum 17-man size of gangs that load and unload containers.

That cut would only exacerbate the loss of work that already is being felt here with container business on the downturn.

"If I were out there working, I'd want an insurance plan working for me," said Bill Schonowski, president of the ILA Local 333, which represents 1,100 cargo handlers. "A three-man cut means that we must preserve the GAI in this port."

Adopted three decades ago to compensate eligible workers for jobs and wages lost because of automation, the GAI assures most longshoremen an annual income of $30,000 whether they're working full time or not. The program is funded through employer contributions, which at one point totaled $14 million a year here.

While the cost of the GAI program has dropped significantly, management still argues that the fund drives up the cost of handling cargo, placing Baltimore at a disadvantage as competition intensifies among East Cost ports.

Only three ports -- Baltimore, Boston and New York -- pay GAI benefits. About half of Baltimore's dockworkers receive some level of GAI payment.

Two years ago, Local 953 of the ILA here reached a buyout agreement with employers, giving up the right to draw any money from the GAI fund. In exchange, up to 50 members of that local, which represented 350 clerks and checkers, were eligible to retire and receive $65,000 each.

Employers, however, have not been able to reach buyout deals with any of the other four ILA locals. The majority of Baltimore longshoremen drawing GAI benefits are members of Local 333, the cargo handlers.

In addition to the GAI, management and ILA here will confront other tough issues, including the labor rates on break-bulk cargo such as steel and wood pulp. ILA leaders are hoping to reach an agreement on the local pact so it can be presented to the rank and file with the master contract on Oct. 2.

But Schonowski predicted yesterday that local talks will go down to "the 11th hour."

Officials for the Steamship Trade Association, which represents more than three dozen employers, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Historically, ILA locals have set break-bulk rates at the same level as containers -- $21 an hour since 1992. But recently, ILA locals from port to port have been undercutting each other, with some setting break-bulk rates as low as $16 an hour.

In an effort to restore solidarity and prevent ports from undercutting each other, ILA President John W. Bowers is seeking a uniform break-bulk rate in the North Atlantic ports. Union and management leaders are expected to return to New York on Tuesday to discuss that issue.

On the master contract, the cut in gang size -- two men during the first year of the contract and one in the third -- prompted leaders from Local 333 to vote against the agreement in New York this week, Schonowski said.

"Obviously we have to accept the agreement now and take it back to the men," he said, noting that leaders from Baltimore's Local 333 were the only ones nationwide to vote against the pact.

"If we can come up with good local conditions, the master agreement might be much more palatable."

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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