Port firm returns to city Better deal from state, ILA

Stevedore company Cooper T./Smith left in '96, blaming costs


October 21, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

More than a year after it pulled out of North Locust Point Marine Terminal complaining that costs were too high, Cooper/T. Smith Inc., a nationally prominent stevedore, will return to Baltimore with a better deal from labor and the state.

The Mobile, Ala.-based company began operations here in 1994, but two years later told the Maryland Port Administration that it would not renew its contract to operate the state-owned terminal and hire longshoremen to load and unload ships.

North Locust Point is used primarily to handle steel, a commodity the MPA has targeted in its strategic plan to lure new cargo. Before leaving, Cooper T./Smith handled more than 300,000 tons of steel and general cargo a year, a figure that plummeted to 120,000 tons last year.

The return of Cooper T./Smith -- once again giving the port four major stevedores -- is one sign that could indicate a turnaround after nearly two years of declining cargo.

"Maybe they see new opportunity to bring cargo here and maybe they're saying the port may not be as bad as they thought," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents three dozen port employers.

Both Cooper/T. Smith and ITO Corp., another port stevedore that took over operation of North Locust Point after Cooper T./Smith left, bid on the latest contract.

Citing Cooper T./Smith's expertise in both handling and attracting steel shipments, the MPA will recommend tomorrow that the state Board of Public Works award the company the $1.8 million-a-year contract for the next two years. ITO has lodged a letter of protest with the state.

"ITO is an excellent company, but in this particular segment, Cooper T./Smith has broader reach and more experience," said Tay Yoshitani, MPA executive director.

Owned by the third generation of the Cooper family, the privately held company operates at most ports between Virginia and Florida, and many along the Gulf of Mexico and on the West Coast.

North Locust Point, with one container crane and four deep-water berths, is known as a particularly good terminal for handling break bulk cargo, such as steel. But, with ports like Philadelphia trying to lure steel, Cooper T./Smith had said it could not generate enough cargo in Baltimore, particularly in light of its costs.

Since the company left, however, the longshoremen have cut their hourly rate for handling steel from $21 to $19, reduced the mandatory size of work gangs and eliminated the program that guaranteed most dockworkers an annual level of income whether they're working or not.

In addition, the MPA was willing to strike a favorable, cost-plus deal that pays Cooper T./Smith to hire the longshoremen necessary to handle whatever volume it attracts to the terminal. The stevedore will not be responsible for leasing space at North Locust Point, as it had been in the past.

"They needed certain concessions from labor and us in order to make it work," Yoshitani said. "Cooper T./Smith is now saying 'it's clear you guys [the International Longshoremen's Association and the MPA] want to work with us. It's enough of a change that they see a potential for doing some business here."

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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