Teamsters strike would cause major woe here

Hoffa, 17 car haulers have a week to agree on a new contract

May 23, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The people managing Baltimore's marine terminals and rail yards feel a headache coming on, and union boss James P. Hoffa is making it happen.

The newly elected president of the Teamsters is negotiating his first national contract -- for 12,000 workers in the car-hauling business. He says the negotiations will prove that "the Teamsters are back," and is promising to "shut this industry down" if talks don't go his way.

But in Baltimore, the car-hauling industry is a staple of domestic and international commerce.

Marine terminals in the city process about 320,000 cars a year for import and export, and the CSX rail yard in Jessup handles 500,000 vehicles moving from domestic manufacturers to dealerships throughout the mid-Atlantic states.

A Teamsters strike would immediately place 600 truck drivers, mechanics and other union members in Baltimore on picket lines, and could gradually leave the port of Baltimore and the Jessup rail yard crammed full of automobiles that can't be moved.

If that happens, local officials fear, one of the port's most successful and plentiful cargoes could wither, drying up business for dozens of spinoff companies that rely on the automobile trade -- and that employ hundreds, perhaps thousands of local workers.

"If it lasts for a long period of time, there could be gridlock," said Michael Robinson, general manager of Premier Automotive Services Inc., which processes about 60,000 Mercedes vehicles imported through the Dundalk Marine Terminal every year.

"Everyone is hoping it won't come to that," he said.

The Teamsters and the 17 car-hauling companies that employ them still have a week to negotiate a new national contract.

Most people close to the talks think that's enough time to reach a compromise, and consider the union's 5,705-to-251 vote last week authorizing a strike to be a formality.

But the negotiations have not been easy. The Teamsters feel entitled to some of the hefty profits that automobile manu- facturers have enjoyed in recent years, while the trucking companies that pay the Teamsters are losing market share and profits to railroads.

Trucking companies are paid by the mile, and since 1985 the average distance traveled by a truck hauling cars has dropped from 230 miles to 147 miles, according to the trucking companies.

Railroads move 70 percent or more of all cars manufactured in the United States, compared with one in 10 percent in the 1960s.

The trucking companies have asked the Teamsters for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedules, while the union wants increased paid time off. The Teamsters also want improved health benefits, stronger safety rules and better pensions to compensate for the job's physical demands, as well as guarantees that union labor would be used for new operations established in Mexico.

Add Hoffa to the equation -- son of famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa, and winner of a fiery election campaign earlier this year -- and an otherwise second-tier contract for the Teamsters finds itself under the hot lights of the national labor relations scene.

"Unfortunately, he's probably being watched by his members to see what he can do, and we're getting a lot more attention than we would have otherwise," said Ian Hunter, executive director of the National Automobile Transporters Labor Division, which is negotiating the contract for the trucking companies.

Said Hunter: "That adds to our anxiety to some degree."

Maryland's public marine terminals are a major East Coast import destination for Toyota, Land Rover, Mercedes and other vehicles. A private terminal in southern Baltimore exports nearly every Chrysler that leaves the United States. Ford and General Motors also make large shipments through the city.

Truckers are not the primary movers of passenger vehicles around the United States; trains are. CSX Transportation Inc., the Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad, operates a major automobile hub terminal, or "ramp," in Jessup for gathering new automobiles to be distributed around the mid-Atlantic states.

But most automobiles move on trucks during at least a portion of their journey from the manufacturing plant to a dealership. And 95 percent of the drivers of those trucks are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

In Baltimore, about 600 Teamsters work in the car-hauling trades, and not only as truck drivers. The union also represents mechanics, office workers, rail-car loaders and others.

Take those workers off the job and cars could clog the parking lots at the port, as several ships a week continue to arrive from Europe and Japan to off-load cargo. The same squeeze could be felt at the rail yard in Jessup, where the cars arrive by train but often leave for dealerships by truck.

Eventually, a Teamsters strike could leave dealers empty of new automobiles and siphon off work for car-related businesses. Companies that clean new cars after shipment, or install components such as radios and under-carriage treatments, would have no new cars to process.

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