Division on the docks

Port contract: Huge cargo deal jeopardized by local union's rejection of modest changes.

May 01, 2000

IF THE port of Baltimore loses the chance to become a hub for the world's largest "roll-on/ roll-off" shipping line, you can thank rank and file members of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association.

Four other ILA locals here approved work-rule changes requested by Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, which carries more autos, farm equipment and heavy machinery than any of its competitors. But not Local 333, which resoundingly rebuffed the deal.

That jeopardizes a 10-year contract with WWL that was expected to lead to a tripling of the line's Baltimore business. Wallenius Wilhelmsen docks 15 ships a month here already, making it the port's leading shipping line.

This is a sharp setback for the port. The cooperative labor spirit that almost landed a big container-cargo deal two years ago has given way to union resistance.

That's unfortunate. The executive committee of Local 333 had wrung concessions from Wallenius Wilhelmsen before presenting the plan to its members. Local 333 is shooting itself in the foot. A 10-year deal with WWL would mean more jobs and more hours worked for longshoremen.

This won't happen unless Local 333 members take a more accommodating stance. Other locals got the message. The requested changes are modest. Indeed, every other East Coast port already has such work rules in place.

The fastest way to shrink jobs on the docks and turn Baltimore into a backwater port is to insist on inflexible work rules that resurrect the old bugaboo about Baltimore's hostile labor climate.

ILA leaders have worked diligently to erase that image. They know that more efficient operations are essential to attract more cargo -- and union jobs. Apparently, the rank and file of Local 333 didn't understand the importance of the work-rule changes.

It's now up to union officials to give disenchanted longshoremen a fuller explanation. When a new vote is called, we urge members of Local 333 to turn out in force and support the Wallenius Wilhelmsen proposal. It's the best -- and perhaps only -- way to strengthen the union and help the port of Baltimore thrive.

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