More work or more wait?

Contract: Many Local 333 Longshoremen feel they have given up enough to shipping companies in return for more work hours. The union rejected a recent proposal 357-57.

April 29, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The pigeons fly around inside at 900 Oldham St. Old gum and puddles of stale soda stick to your shoes, and when the hall fills up with people, a milky blanket of cigarette smoke clings to the ceiling.

There's only one place in Baltimore that Tim Sansone would rather be: on the waterfront, making money.

Sansone is a Longshoreman. He has 18 years of seniority -- a baby on the piers of the Patapsco River -- so if he wants to work he has to tool about the hiring hall of the International Longshoremen's Association, talking shop, smoking his cigarettes and waiting for the dispatchers to post the next job.

"You sit in here all day sometimes, from 6 in the morning until midnight, and then only get four hours of work. Or maybe you get nothing," Sansone said yesterday.

"I only got 18 years seniority, so I got to get work any way I can, whenever I can. I don't know what tomorrow's going to bring."

Like most of his co-workers at Local 333, Sansone, 40, feels like he's under attack these days. The largest shipping line in the port, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, says it won't expand in Baltimore unless his union agrees to new work rules and a new contract.

It's an old theme at Local 333 -- corporations telling the Longshoremen to take less money, and promising more work hours in return.

The Longshoremen agreed to work in the rain, and the new hours didn't come. They gave up their guaranteed annual income provision, and the new hours didn't come.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen asked Local 333 to work ships with fewer men and be more flexible about when the workday starts. Members rejected the proposal 357-57. They don't believe the new hours will come.

"This one local right here is the backbone of the port of Baltimore," said Nathaniel Carter, a 28-year member of the union, at the hall yesterday to play cards before his 1 p.m. job.

"We've given up enough. The port should start giving to us."

Sansone thinks the matter is pretty simple. The union's current contract doesn't expire until October 2001, so why should the Longshoremen agree to change it now for one shipping line? "Why go backwards?" he asked.

And he has a particular concern. A key change sought by Wallenius Wilhelmsen would add more "start times" when Longshoremen must report for work. The result, he said, would be even less certainty for Longshoremen about when and where they will work -- and more time waiting for the bell to ring.

Sansone got to the hiring hall at 7 a.m. yesterday. Actually, he arrived at 5 a.m. from an all-night job laying dunnage and setting up equipment on an Atlantic Container Line ship, but he slept two hours in his car before he went inside.

The morning job calls came and went, with nothing available for an 18-year man. So Sansone went down to the marine terminals to collect his paychecks for the week. Everyone is paid Fridays.

He gives a version of the common answer when asked why he became a Longshoremen. "My father was a Longshoremen," he said. "And my uncle and my brothers and my cousins. My father broke his back down there, at the port. Literally. He broke his back and had to take disability."

He earned his high school equivalency certificate and worked a few years as a shipyard welder before joining the union.

"I like it. I like being a Longshoremen," said Sansone, a Dundalk native who lives in Pasadena. "My father used to bring me down here, and I just kind of got comfortable with it. The people, the atmosphere. ... A lot of other people might not like it.

"But this part here's not real exciting, I guess."

The work on the waterfront is easier than it used to be, back 20 or more years ago when boxes of bananas and sacks of sugar had to be unloaded by hand. But even in the modern age of containerization and mechanization, it's still hard. Working cargo such as steel is as dangerous as it's always been.

Employers don't deny that it's dangerous work. It's the trade's unique benefits they want to eliminate -- particularly how Longshoremen can get paid while not working.

As he sat back in the hiring hall at 1: 30 p.m. yesterday, waiting for his next job, Sansone was getting paid. He had reported at noon for a job unlashing vehicles on a Toyota ship in Fairfield, but the work took only about an hour. The job guaranteed four hours of pay.

But the way he sees it, those extra three hours of pay aren't free money -- they're compensation for the 10 hours he might spend waiting around the hiring hall.

As he leaned against the brown wooden walls, the bell rang.

"Another job," he said quietly. He stood up, turned to the man behind the screened-in counter and shouted "One job, on the payroll, Joe."

Sansone was even worse than an 18-year man yesterday. He was "on the payroll," so everyone who wasn't getting paid at the time had priority. He also already worked a job that day. People who haven't worked yet also had priority. Someone else got the job.

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