Port project put in doubt

Largest shipper irked by failure to change labor rules

Cargo hub imperiled

Longshoremen balk at contract change for big auto carrier

April 28, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The largest shipping line in the port of Baltimore has threatened to abandon plans for a new cargo hub in the city and begin negotiations with competing ports, blaming local Longshoremen for being "noncompetitive."

The Scandinavian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, which wants to consolidate much of its East Coast cargo in Baltimore, said it can't commit to expanding here if the union of cargo handlers doesn't agree to more flexible work hours and job duties. The largest local of the Longshoremen's union has refused, rejecting a contract change offered by the company this month.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen sails about 15 ships a month to the port of Baltimore -- more than any other company -- and would likely continue to call here even if its plans for a new terminal fall through.

But if the effort fails, it would be much more than symbolic for a port struggling to carve a niche in an industry that has gradually cast it aside.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines is the world's largest carrier of automobiles, farm equipment and heavy machinery -- cargo that the port of Baltimore is supposed to handle best. Failure to reach an agreement would shackle a growth-hungry customer in a port where growth is rare, and spurn the top player in a business that is considered the future of Baltimore's maritime trade

"We're disappointed. We want to stay in Baltimore, and it makes sense for us to stay," said Chris Connor, Wallenius Wilhelmsen's executive vice president.

"But today, under current conditions, Baltimore is not a competitive port from a labor standpoint," he said. "And if we're unable to resolve that, then we're going to rethink our strategy and look somewhere else."

Members of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, the unit responsible for loading and unloading most commercial ships in Baltimore, say they've given enough over the years to keep the port competitive. Every time their contracts are renewed, they offer more concessions, members say. And still work in the port declines.

The dispute between Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Local 333 does not involve wages. The base wage will remain $24 an hour.

But the union is clinging to work rules and other requirements in its contract that it has struggled for years to maintain -- and which Wallenius Wilhelmsen says are among the most costly of any American port it uses. Other Longshoremen's locals have reached agreements with the company and are not involved in the dispute.

A key issue involves the times when Longshoremen will report for work. Under the current contract, a ship calling in the port must "order" Longshoremen the day before it arrives, and only for one of five specified times: 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m. and midnight.

If the ship is delayed and arrives late, it must pay workers for the lost time. A vessel that orders labor for 8 a.m. but arrives at 10 a.m., for instance, must pay the workers for the two hours. To keep that from happening, Wallenius Wilhelmsen wants to add three more possible start times: 10 a.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

The company also has asked for flexibility in the type of work that the Longshoremen will do.

Now, laborers must be ordered in "gangs" of at least 15 workers, and all of them must perform the same function. If a ship arrives carrying automobiles, farm equipment and boxes of household goods, for instance, separate gangs must be ordered for each cargo, regardless of whether an entire gang is needed to unload it.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen wants the authority to split gangs among various duties.

"We're asking them to move closer to the situation we have in other ports -- not all the way, just closer," said Connor.

Members of Local 333 rejected Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines' proposal by a 357-57 vote on April 10. Port officials and some union members are hoping to bring the matter to another vote, but its future is unclear. Local President Doug Wagner was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment.

"A lot of guys feel like they've just given up, given up, given up every time, and the work has still shrunk," said Joseph Fontaine, a 21-year member of Local 333 who voted in favor of the contract change.

"The reality of it is that everybody's taking cuts these days. But they didn't want to keep doing it."

Other union members who would not agree to be quoted said few Longshoremen believe that Wallenius Wilhelmsen will ever leave the port of Baltimore. The city's inland geography, which drives away many shipping lines, makes the port an attractive spot for shipping automobiles and machinery. Wallenius Wilhelmsen officials acknowledge that they wouldn't likely sail out of town overnight. But a new cargo center has the potential to draw more ships to the port and make Baltimore the top load center for the top carrier in the business.

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