Dockworkers balk at concessions to lure Cooper firm back to port Revolt in the ranks could unravel deal


October 30, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The deal to bring Cooper/T. Smith back to the port of Baltimore is threatening to unravel, with dockworkers balking at extra concessions that the nationally prominent stevedoring company wants.

The concessions -- reached in a tentative agreement between the Mobile, Ala.-based company and the leadership of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association -- go beyond the cuts in wages and gang size that the ILA approved last year in its local work contract.

Longshoremen here say they have told Local 333 President William Schonowski that they won't accept further cuts. That is jeopardizing the return of Cooper/T. Smith, which believes it can lure more steel to the North Locust Point Marine Terminal, where shipments have declined by nearly two-thirds since the stevedore left more than a year ago.

Neither Cooper/T. Smith nor Schonowski could be reached for comment, but Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public terminals, said the deal hinges on the concessions.

"Cooper/T. Smith is not going to come in here and operate unless they have the contract they basically bargained for with the ILA [leadership]," he said.

In recent years, the public terminals at the port of Baltimore, which use unionized Longshoremen, have been losing steel shipments to nonunion marine terminals in Philadelphia that have been undercutting the ILA's rates. In addition, private terminals in Baltimore, which operate with nonunion workers, have been handling more and more work. Cooper/T. Smith began operations at North Locust Point in 1994, but two years later told the MPA that it would not renew its contract to operate the state-owned terminal. It complained that labor and terminal costs that were too high.

Since then, steel and general cargo shipments at North Locust Point have plummeted from 300,000 tons a year to 120,000 tons.

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. It has an international reputation for handling break bulk commodities such as steel and the MPA sees the company's return as important to its strategic plan, which targets commodities such as steel.

Last week, the state Board of Public Works approved an agreement between the MPA and Cooper/T. Smith, with highly favorable terms, to once again run the North Locust Point terminal. The cost-plus contract would pay Cooper/T. Smith to hire Longshoremen to load and unload cargo for whatever volume of cargo it attracts to the terminal. The stevedore would not be responsible for leasing space at North Locust Point, as it had been in the past.

While the state contracts with a stevedore to operate the terminal, it has no role in the negotiations between the stevedore and the ILA about such issues as hourly wages, gang sizes and work rules. According to some dockworkers, Cooper is seeking cuts in the mandatory size of work gangs as well as some work rule changes.

Last year, the ILA, reacting to labor conditions in Philadelphia, agreed to a five-year contract that cut the 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.

The local ILA contract, however, provides that Longshoremen can negotiate special changes to their contract in order to lure new business or retain existing cargo at risk. While the ILA leadership is free to negotiate those changes, it politically must clear them with the rank and file.

The controversy over the contract with Cooper comes at a difficult time for Schonowski, who has served as president of the 500-member local for two years and is facing re-election in December. The flap is certain to become an election issue.

"We gave them wage cuts and gang cuts. We're working faster for less money," said John Blom, a cargo handler who is challenging Schonowski for the top post. "Steel is the most dangerous and hardest work in the port."

The company has reached agreements with other locals representing Longshoremen, including Local 953, which handles paperwork and other clerical duties.

"If we're going to get that steel, we're going to have to put together a competitive package," said Richard P. Hughes, president of Local 953. "If they don't get it at Locust Point, it's going to Clinton Street," he said referring to private terminals in Baltimore where labor is paid less.

While Local 953 has granted concessions, they are not believed to be as extensive as the ones that Cooper/T. Smith is seeking from the cargo handlers.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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