A tense time for the port

Dubai deal collapse creates widespread uncertainty

March 26, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

The last time the largest terminal operator at the port of Baltimore was sold, in 1999, there wasn't much to the transition.

"They gave us stickers with the new logo to put on the door," said Bayard Hogans, an eight-year veteran of P&O Ports North America.

He and others thought that when P&O was sold to Dubai Ports World earlier this month - in a deal involving P&O's British parent company - they would get another logo for their offices in a small building that faces the gate at Seagirt Marine Terminal. But Instead, the port operator is for sale again.

DP World agreed to sell after a nationwide uproar about an Arab government-owned company moving into potentially vulnerable American marine ports. And while the debate has quieted since the company agreed to leave the U.S. ports and the focus in Washington has shifted elsewhere, the 900 longshoremen, their 65 P&O managers and the directors at the state-owned port in Baltimore are left to ponder who might take over and what it will mean for them.

There is no guarantee the incoming American owner will honor a pledge the Dubai company made to workers. DP World has said there is significant interest in the company but has not identified a frontrunner. "There is going to be another buyer, and the commitment is no longer valid," F. Brooks Royster III, the top executive at the port.

"I never want to see a skilled supervisor or labor leave the port of Baltimore. I encourage the new owners to retain this work force."

The port administrators have a tough time selling some container shipping lines on using the Baltimore port because of its location up the Chesapeake Bay, well off the Atlantic Ocean, but they landed new service last week. They did so, in part, by touting the efficiency of the longshoremen who move up to 37 containers an hour and, after some contentious debate over work rules years ago, continue on the job rain or shine.

As a last resort, Royster said, he could seek to nullify P&O's contract if the health of the port appears in jeopardy, although there is little enthusiasm for a move that could bring more instability - and litigation - to the waterfront.

P&O has been holding regular meetings to provide information and reassure workers - some who have been there for decades - said Mark Montgomery, P&O's senior vice president of East Coast operations. Montgomery has survived other company sales since coming to Baltimore in 1980.

The anxiety is being felt in all of the nearly two dozen U.S. ports, from New York to Miami, affected by DP World's pending sell-off of the U.S. operations it bought from Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., the British parent of P&O Ports.

The port of New Orleans had begun to recover from the Gulf Coast hurricanes last summer and fall when its workers were faced with the ownership question, said Matt Gresham, a port authority spokesman.

"We reached 100 percent of our pre-Katrina ship activity in mid-February," he said. "We had a goal of getting to 60 to 80 percent at the six-month mark and we surpassed that goal. We just want to get word out that we're open for business."

To Jack Roeckell, a 22-year veteran of Baltimore's port and now the Seagirt terminal manager, the past month of port politics wasn't just about Capitol Hill news conferences and talk-radio debate, but also "sleepless nights" and "ulcers," perhaps for the next four to six months, when the company is expected to be sold.

"I feel like we're circling around BWI waiting to land," he said. "If we're sold in one piece that would be nice. A job would be nice, a pension would be nice."

The longshoremen whom he supervises would appear to have job security because of the collective bargaining agreement that the next buyer must abide by. Still, they can't help but fear the unknown just a little.

Lanny Eckenrode, a longshoreman for more than three decades, now sits at a bank of computers at the entrance to Seagirt and logs in truckers carrying containerized cargo. The terminal is P&O's biggest contract for work at the port of Baltimore. The company estimates it handles about two-thirds of the work at the public terminals.

Eckenrode was on truck No. 1809 one recent day with less than an hour to go in his shift. Through a microphone hooked up to a phone at the gate, he asked the trucker his business at the port, used a series of cameras to make sure the number on the container matched the one on his computer screen and instructed the driver where to go.

He and other longshoremen said the work should be the same no matter who pays them, but they are worried about being replaced. "Automation is more of a concern for me" than the specific employer, he said.

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