Dock union again bars concessions

Shipping line says port needs changes to be competitive

New cargo hub doubtful

Longshoremen say Wallenius reneged on work promises

Port of Baltimore

June 21, 2000|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Local Longshoremen voted 235-189 yesterday against work rules concessions that would have all but cemented plans for the port of Baltimore's largest shipping line to establish a new cargo hub in the city.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, the world's largest automobile carrier, previously threatened to begin negotiations with other ports unless the contract was approved. Without the labor concessions, the company has said, Baltimore is not competitive with other East Coast ports.

Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association had rejected a similar contract addendum in a 357-57 vote April 10. Union members said they don't expect another vote on the issue.

At stake is a major source of growth for a port that has seen a decline in recent years, as container lines have left Baltimore for ports closer to the open sea. Wallenius sends about 15 ships a month to the port, bringing automobiles, farm equipment and machinery that has become a lucrative niche business and made Baltimore the nation's No. 1 port for "roll-on/roll-off" cargo. The Scandinavian shipping company has said it wants to consolidate much of its East Coast business in Baltimore.

Though Wallenius is expected to remain a strong presence in the port, landing the hub would have gone a long way toward ensuring the steamship line's long-term commitment to the city.

"This was never Wallenius Wilhelmsen holding a gun to the port and saying, `We need this or we're going to leave,'" said Chris Connor, executive vice president of the shipping line. "It was always about do we really drop our anchor here and make this a hub location.

"It [the vote] is disappointing, and it really provides us with no incentive to bring more cargo to the port."

James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said the port will continue to work with Wallenius in hopes of increasing its vessel calls to Baltimore.

"We need to do everything possible to make sure that business stays here," White said.

The port's other unions have signed agreements with the shipping line. But in rejecting the agreement in April, many Local 333 members said they have given the shipping lines enough concessions over the years.

To improve its odds, Wallenius changed some of the wording in its latest proposal, but the key provisions remained largely the same. The contract called for more flexible work rules and job duties, something some union members said would ultimately result in fewer hours for Longshoremen.

Wallenius conceded that the contract contained no guarantee of more work for the port of Baltimore. But the company said it has a proven track record of greatly increasing vessel calls at other ports where it has established hub operations. One such hub is in Brunswick, Ga., where the shipping line makes 125 to 150 calls a year.

"With the right labor agreements in place, you can make it work," Connor said.

Some union members rejected that argument for a second time yesterday, saying previous concessions have not resulted in more work.

Over the years, union members gave up their guaranteed annual income provision, agreed to work in the rain and begin work at midnight. Each time, they were promised more work in exchange for more flexible work rules.

"It never happened," said Longshoreman Roland Goodwin, who voted against the contract. "Enough is enough. You've got to draw the line somewhere. This is the line."

Preston Oliver, another veteran dockworker, said, "We've been making concessions for the last 30 years and they [shipping lines] have been making promises for 30 years and it's meant nothing."

Some of the union's younger members hold a different view. They just want the opportunity to work, and they say Wallenius seems like their best opportunity for job security. Junior members are generally last in line for work.

"I thought it was a pretty good deal," said Mike Welker, who has been a Longshoreman for one year. "It's bringing work to the port and we all need more work."

To obtain that work, the Longshoremen were asked to be more flexible about the times when they will report to work. A ship calling on the port must request labor the day before it arrives and only at specified start times: 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m. and midnight. A ship requesting Longshoremen at 7 a.m., for example, must start paying for that labor at the specified start time - even if it arrives late and work doesn't begin until hours later.

Wallenius asked for additional starting times at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in exchange for a guarantee of seven and eight hours of work, respectively, for Longshoremen starting at those times.

The steamship line also asked the Longshoremen to be less rigid about the type of work performed by each gang. Currently, workers must be ordered in gangs of 15, with all members of the gang performing the same task.

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