Baltimore dockworkers are expected to vote again tomorrow on a contract that union leaders say is necessary to lure badly needed work to the port. But the outcome remains highly uncertain, with the rank-and-file bitterly splintered over whether or not to abandon the union's Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) program.
"Whether or not we keep the GAI is a very divisive thing," said Bill Schonowski, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents about 800 dockworkers.
"Some men live on it some men resent it. All kinds of people are simply outraged," he said.
During a straw vote late Friday about the GAI, one angry dockworker grabbed the ballot box, ran outside and set fire to some of the ballots, according to Schonowski. The meeting ended abruptly without a count.
That meeting was called two days after dockworkers rejected the local contract on a 736-129 vote. Schonowski said he wanted to poll workers about the GAI program and other issues before resuming talks with employers this week.
On a straw ballot, workers reportedly were asked to vote for either a buyout of the guaranteed annual income, to retain some form of worker assistance or neither. According to several sources at the meeting, workers became outraged after being told halfway through the voting that "neither" votes would be counted as abstentions.
Meanwhile yesterday, work continued on the docks here. Following the overwhelming rejection last week, both sides agreed to extend the existing contract.
The extension, however, was not seen as indefinite.
"It looks as if we will be handed a final offer [today]. The men will have to vote to ratify or not, and to decide whether they want to be on strike," Schonowski said yesterday.
Any work stoppage would send a devastating message to the steamship industry about the port of Baltimore, which is already losing cargo. Most dockworkers, however, say they want to continue working and not to strike.
Without a strike vote, a work stoppage could only result if the Steamship Trade Association, which represents more than three dozen employers, decides to lock out the workers.
Maurice C. Byan, president of the association, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
According to Schonowski, steamship lines, concerned about the limbo in Baltimore, have already begun calling.
"They want to know if they should bring their ships in here," he said. "If they don't bring them in, God knows if they'll come back.
"I'm hoping that the men will understand that we have to settle this contract and get back to work."
Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the port's terminals, said yesterday that such calls from carriers are routine when a contract negotiation is not settled.
"They typically call in advance to make sure they feel comfortable that once they get here the ships will be worked," Yoshitani said. "As long as they know the ships are being worked, it's a positive sign for them."
Elsewhere along the East Coast, Longshoremen have reached some agreement, though work stoppages occurred temporarily in Boston and Philadelphia. Except for New York, all the ports that were paying GAI benefits have now agreed to eliminate them.
Established three decades ago to offset the impact of automation, the guaranteed annual income has long been considered sacred by the ILA. Largely because of attrition, the number of workers who receive those payments has declined steadily and now represents only 10 percent of the port's 1,300 Longshoremen.
But forthcoming cuts in the size of gangs that load and unload both containers and break-bulk cargo could result in more men drawing GAI benefits next year.
Dockworkers must work a minimum of 250 hours a year to qualify for even some GAI payments. The program has resulted in abuses among some workers who reportedly work just long enough to trigger the guaranteed payments. But others, particularly workers with less than 20 years' experience, use the program as a safety net when they cannot find work on the docks. Employers, however, argue that the program is one of several factors that drives up the cost of labor at the port of Baltimore.
Pub Date: 10/08/96