Leaders of three Longshoremen's locals think they might have enough votes to win approval for a key contract with the port of Baltimore's largest shipping line, possibly paving the way for the development of a new cargo hub in the city.
The news comes one week after members of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association voted 235-189 to reject the contract addendum, leaving port officials worried that Scandinavian steamship company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines might reject Baltimore as the site of its proposed East Coast cargo hub.
Members of Local 1429 of the ILA will vote today to decide whether to accept work rule changes requested by Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which has made the union concessions a cornerstone of its proposed expansion in Baltimore. Locals 921 and 1355 voted on the measure yesterday. Results of all the balloting are expected late today.
If successful, the port's smaller maintenance, grain loaders' and carpenters' unions would essentially overrule Local 333's vote last week. With about 700 members, Local 333, which represents cargo handlers, is by far the port's largest Longshoremen's union.
Because of its size relative to the other unions, Local 333 often has the final say on contract matters. But the poor turnout in last week's voting and the slim 46-vote margin means the other three locals voting on the contract this week have a chance to prevail.
"With the aggregate vote, there's still a good chance it could pass," said Paul Kursch, president of Local 1429. Kursch said he is confident the roughly 130 members of Local 1429 will vote overwhelmingly in favor of the contract.
Union leadership is relying on a provision in ILA bylaws that allows contract matters that affect all of the port's Longshoremen's unions to be decided by the combined membership of all the locals. Though one local's membership may reject the contract, the proposal could still pass if the majority of all ILA members serving the port vote to approve it.
However, the matter would likely face a challenge by local union members who oppose the deal with Wallenius Wilhelmsen. In that instance, the ILA's international office would be asked to provide its interpretation of union bylaws. Ultimately, the matter could end up in the courts, said Horace T. Alston, president of the Baltimore District Council of the ILA.
"It's just a group of people that doesn't want to make a change," Alston said of Local 333 members who voted to reject the contract last week and in a previous vote in April.
Much is at stake for the port of Baltimore, which has seen its business decline in recent years as major steamship lines have consolidated operations at other East Coast ports. Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the world's largest automobile carrier, has been one of the few bright spots, bringing lucrative roll-on/roll-off cargo to Baltimore and making it the No. 1 port in the country for such cargo.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen wants to take that a step further by making Baltimore the center of its East Coast operations. The Maryland Port Administration has paved the way by pledging to provide land and facilities for the steamship line to expand. The only major obstacle remaining is the union contract.
The company has asked Longshoremen to be more flexible about the times when they will report to work. The request for additional start times would allow the shipping line to cut the amount of time it must pay Longshoremen while they are waiting for a ship to arrive. Some Longshoremen say the provision will force them to spend more time waiting for work.
The shipping line also asked the union to be less rigid about the type of work performed by each gang.
Currently, workers must be organized in gangs of 15, with all members of the gang performing the same task. Wallenius Wilhelmsen wants the ability to split the gangs among different types of cargo under certain circumstances. If approved, the contract would take effect in October 2001, if Wallenius Wilhelmsen goes forward with its expansion plans.
A spokesman for the steamship line could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Management and the union agree that the Wallenius Wilhelmsen hub is important to the future of the port. The line sends 15 ships a month to the port, representing more than 300,000 man-hours for Longshoremen's unions. Meanwhile, the ILA has seen nonunion business grow on the waterfront.
"I'm thinking of what's going to happen 40 to 50 years from now," said Alston, the ILA's Baltimore district president. "I would love to leave this place, this union, in a position that if any young man or woman would choose this profession to make their livelihood, then there'd be a place for him or her to be employed under unionized labor."