BALTIMORE'S PORT finds itself at a critical juncture today as dockworkers vote on a new contract. A second rejection could severely damage the maritime industry here, threatening the rTC livelihoods of 80,000 Marylanders whose incomes depend on a healthy port.
It isn't an easy choice for members of the International Longshoremen's Association. They are being asked to give up their Guaranteed Annual Income program, an expensive and hard-won concession that ensures paychecks for some members regardless of whether they work. But fierce competition for a dwindling number of ships calling at fewer ports makes the costly GAI an albatross for Baltimore.
Only New York and Baltimore still have a GAI. Retaining it here would send a clear signal to steamship lines that it is best to avoid Baltimore because of its exorbitant costs and its uncooperative labor unions.
Baltimore's port is being squeezed. ILA locals elsewhere are voting to reduce wages and benefits to gain more cargo. Non-union dockworkers are undercutting union rates both in Baltimore and elsewhere along the East Coast. So are other unions trying to take maritime business away from the ILA. And Baltimore is at a distinct geographic disadvantage because of the time-consuming trip for ships up and down the Chesapeake Bay.
When the maritime industry was healthy and work was plentiful, a GAI program might have been affordable. No longer. For Baltimore to retain business and aggressively pursue new break-bulk cargo, dockworkers must lower shipping costs. That means smaller gang sizes, flexible work rules, wage and fringe-benefit concessions and increased productivity.
Only 130 ILA members participate in the GAI program. The other 1,170 longshoremen are the victims. Baltimore's dockworkers must let shippers know they are willing to do what it takes to bring cargo into this port. That is the best -- and possibly only -- way to improve the prospects for longshoremen. Life on the docks is tough enough without retaining a GAI program that chases away jobs.
Pub Date: 10/09/96