From the beginning, the message was clear: Work was vanishing in the port of Baltimore, and in the face of vast competition, failure by longshoremen here to make major concessions could only spell doom for an already troubled port.
It was crisis time on the docks. Even leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association said so.
Not that they had to.
For most dockworkers, the early morning trip to a grimy cinder-block hiring hall in East Baltimore was a daily reminder. There, they lined up in front of the large letters on the wall that designated seniority. But increasingly, there has been work only for the "A's" and the "B's" -- those with 30 years or more of seniority.
The silent cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal reminded them, too. So did the empty yards at North Locust Point, the growing number of ships being worked by non-ILA workers at Rukert Terminals Corp. and the exodus of the massive blue and white Maersk Line ships that once brought thousands of containers to the port.
As cargo has dwindled, so has the ILA's power.
After overwhelmingly rejecting a local contract last week, the ILA's rank-and-file on Wednesday narrowly approved an agreement that may have been no better than -- or even as good as -- the one they had defeated.
But as they faced the prospect of a strike or lockout, the 456-421 vote was a grudging acceptance of the grim reality.
"Most of the guys knew if we went out we'd hurt ourselves," said Matty Capp, a dockworker and former president of Local 333, the cargo handlers local that represents 800 men.
Throughout the intense and often emotional talks, management insisted that the cost of labor was a major factor driving up the cost of doing business in Baltimore. With concessions that created a more level playing field, more cargo might come to Baltimore.
"It puts us in the ballpark," Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association said Wednesday night after the vote.
But there was only hope -- no guarantees.
In exchange for work that may or may not come, dockworkers won a five-year contract but took some cuts in pay and gang sizes along with changes in the Cadillac benefits plan they have enjoyed for decades. In effect, they were forced to make some of the same concessions as millions of other American workers.
But they also gave up something that few American workers have ever enjoyed -- a Guaranteed Annual Income plan that paid dockworkers $30,000 a year whether they worked or not.
The proposal to eliminate the GAI was a bitterly divisive one, with dockworkers ultimately agreeing to accept a $4,000 lump sum payment to abandon the program.
"We're not the powerful union that we once were," said Bill Schonowski, president of Local 333.
The ranks of longshoremen in Baltimore alone have dwindled from 3,500 in the mid-1970s to about 1,200 today. The number of annual man-hours has plunged to 2.1 million from 5.5 million.
There was a time when the ILA was far more powerful. Dockworkers here felt a kinship with each other as well as with their brothers on the docks of Philadelphia, Norfolk and Boston. With a strong international leadership, wages and benefits increased steadily over the years; many longshoremen made more than $75,000.
As a union, the ILA grew powerful but perhaps too comfortable. With barely a fight, it walked away from former ILA companies, such as Rukert, when negotiations broke off years ago. And time and time again, it failed to organize other workers.
During the 1980s and early '90s, the ILA in Baltimore went through a series of work stoppages that resulted in huge amounts of cargo shifting to the port of Hampton Roads, Va. Since 1990, the once-inflexible ILA has made a number of concessions.
Members agreed to work in the rain -- a task that, on slippery containers three stories high, is far more dangerous than it might sound. They agreed to more flexible starting times and to cut labor rates on certain kinds of cargo.
While the port of Baltimore experienced a brief resurgence, revolutionary changes in the maritime industry have reversed its short-lived good fortune. Mammoth carriers -- such as Maersk Line and Sea-Land -- have formed alliances, consolidating their cargo on bigger ships and stopping at fewer ports.
Up and down the East Coast, ILA locals are competing fiercely for the dwindling amount of work. Nonunion labor, and even the Teamsters, have siphoned off dock work, working for as little as $10 an hour. ILA locals from port to port have been undercutting one another's rates.
With the acceptance of the local contract this week, the playing field has indeed become more level -- at least in terms of labor costs. Yet the obstacles for Baltimore's longshoremen remain.
Perhaps more than any factor, the Chesapeake Bay -- and the 12-hour journey it represents for ships coming to Baltimore -- is symbolic of the difficult and perhaps uncontrollable times ahead for the port and its workers.
"Regardless of how the contract went down," said dockworker Milton Krajewski, "it's a no-win situation for longshoremen today."
Pub Date: 10/11/96