Ports uproar finds no home at local dock

Longshoremen say safety, security issues far outweigh current political furor

February 24, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

A steady line of cars pulled through the gate just before 1 p.m. yesterday. Longshoremen, many already wearing their orange safety vests, flashed their badges to guards and made their way over to the berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal where the MSC Zurich had docked.

Many of them have made this same trek for years, even decades. But one thing was different yesterday. The work they were used to doing in relative anonymity was suddenly news.

The company they work for, the British-owned cargo handling company Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., or P&O, is being bought by another stevedoring firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates.

A lot of U.S. lawmakers, governors and mayors say that's a security problem. But on the waterfront, there was a collective shrug.

There certainly are issues on the Baltimore waterfront, longshoremen say: safety issues from ill-kept equipment and security issues from holes in the system set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sometimes, guards don't always take a good look at ID cards at the gate, or foreign crews are allowed unchecked off the ships or even out of the port, some said. Or U.S. Customs and Coast Guard officials tasked with flagging suspicious cargo go home before the ship is done being unloaded, some said.

The biggest problem, said the longshoremen, as well as a host of security experts, is the potential for a terrorist or drug smuggler or criminal of another stripe to stick something in a cargo container overseas.

But who signs their paychecks, the dockworkers said, doesn't have much to do with any of that.

"We can't do anything about it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," Joe Letts, a longshoreman for 33 years, said of potential security threats. "I don't see how changing the cargo handling company here adds any real risk factors."

None of the cargo handling companies that hire the longshoremen at the state's public terminals is U.S.-owned. Most longshoremen know that the two biggest are British and Japanese. These companies have contracts to operate the terminals for the Maryland Port Administration and supply the supervisors for the longshoremen.

At the port of Baltimore, P&O rents and manages the Seagirt Marine Terminal, where most container cargo is offloaded. Until April, it will also oversee movement of some of the of cars and construction and farm equipment - called roll on-roll off, or ro-ro, cargo - at Dundalk Marine Terminal. When cruises start up again this season, the company will oversee baggage handling in South Locust Point.

At Seagirt yesterday, about 50 men went about their business of unloading the Zurich - a vessel owned by a Swiss shipping line, flagged in Hong Kong and carrying goods from Europe.

They operated a high-speed blue crane that swooshed over the top of the ship to grasp one 40-foot-long container at a time, lifting one every couple of minutes and dropping it onto a tractor, known as a "fifth wheel," lined up at the water's edge. Each fifth wheel would scurry off behind stacked containers of orange, white, yellow and green, hand off its load to another crane that stacks them five high, and then get back in line for another container.

The longshoremen made sure no one crashed into anyone else in the fury of the hours-long job. When all is going smoothly, port officials say, they can move 37 containers an hour.

Several longshoremen, interviewed at the union hall where many workers not attached to a regular "gang" go to get day assignments, said their main concern about the proposed deal is whether they'll get more hours. Next week, when the Dubai deal is supposed to close, no one expects anything about the job to change.

"The work, it'll be no different," said Glenn Robinson, a union longshoreman for five years. "Work is work. We'll keep doing a good job, because if we don't, the ships will stop coming."

P&O supervisors, as well as the Maryland Port Administration officials who hired them, declined to talk yesterday. Some longshoremen didn't want to give their names or talk at all.

For the record, containers - which make up about 60 percent of the cargo at the port of Baltimore - generally are filled with furniture, steel, electronics and clothing made all over the globe, according to the port officials.

The longshoremen at the union hall said that neither they nor their supervisors know what's inside the containers they move, or even where they come from or where they go. If the cargo is coming off a ship, as it was yesterday, they have paperwork that tells them where to find it on the vessel and what lot or shed on the port grounds to put it in.

There are international security agreements signed, cargo and crew manifests sent to U.S. border monitors and even Coast Guardsmen stationed at overseas ports to keep watch. But with millions of containers traveling the world's seas, longshoremen were split on how good the methods are.

X-ray machines scan suspicious cargo. One was set up just off the side of the MSC Zurich yesterday. A small number of containers are peeled off and X-rayed.

Letts said the use of intelligence was the best way to thwart terrorists.

Others said the longshoremen are another good tool. They have known each other for years, and they know someone or something suspicious when they see it: the box labeled crackers that weighs too much, or the one labeled bananas that has white powder coming out of the seams.

To fully protect the port, the officials would have to stop international commerce, longshoremen said. None of them wanted that.

"My main concern is my job," said Preston Olliver, a longshoreman for 36 years. "I'll let the federal government take care of security. But this flap has nothing to do with security. It's nothing more than election-year politics. A political issue."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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