Talks avert walkout by car haulers

17 trucking firms, Teamsters agree to 4-year national pact

Strike could have hurt port

Contract covers 12,000, first major agreement under Hoffa, the son

Organized labor

June 03, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The national Teamsters union agreed to a tentative four-year contract yesterday with companies that haul new cars throughout the United States, averting a possible strike that had threatened to clog the port of Baltimore and siphon off one of its primary cargoes.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa announced the agreement yesterday morning after all-night negotiations, saying that the 17 trucking companies had offered better pension benefits and withdrawn a proposal for more part-time workers.

The 12,000 Teamsters car-hauling drivers and other workers had threatened to strike Monday night, when their last contract expired, but had extended the deadline as negotiations progressed.

"It looks like a good contract for the union, and I think my men will be happy to see it," said John McLain, head of the car-hauling division of Teamsters Local 557 in Baltimore. "They didn't want to strike, but they were ready to do it to protect their jobs."

The agreement, which still must be approved by union members later this month, gives each employee a $1,500 bonus in the first year and a 50 cents-an-hour increase in each of the last three years of the contract, according the union. The average annual salary of Teamsters car haulers is currently $55,000.

Drivers who choose to retire after 25 years of work would get better pension benefits, including health insurance for those age 55 and older, and retirees over age 65 would get new prescription drug benefits. Hoffa said the union had not yielded to the trucking companies' major demands to pay newly hired drivers less and hire some part time.

"We have actually swept the board," Hoffa said.

While new cars imported or exported through Baltimore are shipped predominantly by rail, most new vehicles being shipped to dealerships travel at least a portion of that journey on a truck. More than 95 percent of the drivers of those trucks nationwide are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. A Team- sters strike in Baltimore could have caused the public marine terminals to fill with new automobiles in a week or two, as car-carrying ships from Japan and Europe continued to arrive at the piers. The logjam eventually could have drained dealerships of their inventories and left hundreds of port workers in auto-related industries with no work to do.

Automobiles are a significant commodity in the port, where the in-land terminals allow manufacturers to schedule shorter trips on trucks and trains, which can be more damaging to vehicles than ships. About 250,000 automobiles moved through the port in 1998.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Maryland Port Administration, the shipment of automobiles through the port is directly responsible for 1,090 local jobs. The wages paid to those workers also underwrite various service-industry jobs in the region, said the study.

Local 557 held a meeting Sunday to select strike captains and lieutenants, and had mapped out 10 locations for picket lines. About 600 workers in Baltimore are represented under the Teamsters car-hauling contract, and they move the majority of the automobiles shipped through the port and into a Jessup rail yard operated by CSX Transportation.

The car-haulers contract was the first for Hoffa, who was installed as union president in March after a campaign finance scandal led to his predecessor's ouster. Hoffa, son of the late James R. Hoffa, a former union boss, had said he expected the negotiations to prove that "the Teamsters are back."

The Teamsters had argued for wage and benefits increases as their share of near-record sales within the auto industry, where analysts forecast sales of more than 16 million cars and light trucks this year.

The chief negotiator for the trucking companies said in a statement that the agreement represents a compromise by both sides.

"This new agreement contains provisions that will guarantee considerable improvements for our employees while enabling our companies to continue providing the best service in the business," said Ian Hunter, chief negotiator for the National Automobile Transporters labor division.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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