No safe harbor

Port workers watch automakers, and worry

December 03, 2008|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Phillip Peay has reaped the benefits of working at a bustling port of Baltimore for the past 19 years. His employer, a port logistics company, has paid for most of his college education, and he, his wife and two children live in a house in Rosedale.

But the 38-year-old man is also concerned, because he knows his livelihood may depend on the Big Three automakers, specifically Chrysler LLC - the port's largest exporter of automobiles. After listening to Chrysler's president and others speak about the necessity of a federal bailout for the Big Three during a town hall-style meeting yesterday, Peay says he still has more questions about how the automakers will succeed.

He said he plans to follow their efforts closely as he and his colleagues wonder about their jobs.

"For the most part, everybody's getting 40 hours," Peay said outside an Amports ATC terminal in South Baltimore, where he works as a shop manager. "No cutbacks or layoffs, but you can see the work is slower than it has been in the past."

Leaders of the Big Three automakers head to Congress this week to rally support for a $25 billion bailout package as the economy lurches through a recession and car-buying plummets. Officials with Ford yesterday asked Congress for a $9 billion bridge loan and made other concessions, while officials with Chrysler and General Motors are expected to detail their business plans later this week.

James Press, Chrysler's president, meanwhile, said he's undertaken his own "whistle-stop trip" this week, to listen to ideas from workers connected to the auto industry about what the company needs to do to succeed. He stopped at an Amports ATC terminal in South Baltimore yesterday to talk to port workers.

"It's about saving jobs and preserving our way of life in America," Press told a gathering of port workers, government officials and reporters, while flanked by several different Chrysler models.

The visit came the same day that Chrysler announced that its November U.S. sales fell 47 percent. GM suffered a 41 percent drop, while Ford's decline was 31 percent.

Press also had plans today to meet with Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and automotive industry interests in Philadelphia, followed by a visit to a car dealership in New Carrollton, Md., according to a Chrysler spokesman. It is part of a public relations push the automakers have launched in the face of skeptical, but worried, Americans who are still grappling with the prospect of a $700 billion dollar bailout for the country's financial markets.

Steven E. Rand, president and chief executive of Amports, said his company employs about 400 people at the port - and roughly half of them are directly tied to working with Chrysler vehicle exports. His workers handle about 350,000 cars a year through the port, most of them Chryslers, he said.

"There are literally hundreds of jobs created because of Chrysler's business in Baltimore and the fact that Chrysler has found a global economy" to market its cars, Rand told the crowd.

James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said in an interview that the impact of Chrysler on the port is high: about one-third of the 600,000 total vehicles that come through the port are Chryslers. Nationwide, Baltimore is the top port for vehicle exports and second only to New York in terms of both import and export of automobiles.

White said the weaker dollar last year helped foreign buyers purchase American goods, helping the port of Baltimore have its best year in its 302-year history, he said. White said that Toyota and Honda, two Japanese automakers that have plants in the United States, used Baltimore's port to export about 40,000 cars to overseas destinations last year.

White said he expects that economic troubles in Europe could mean a slowdown at the port, which directly employs more than 16,000 people. The agency couldn't take a position on the Big Three bailout proposal but would support measures that are good for the port, he said.

"Our focus is just on increasing cargo flowing over our docks," White said. "Import, export ... anything that's going to create a job through international trade is what we're all about."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat and senior member of the House's transportation and infrastructure committee, also spoke about the importance of helping the Big Three automakers survive. "We take things for granted until we lose them, and then we're sorry," Cummings said. "We cannot afford to lose one more job. Not one more."

But Cummings also noted that he wanted to hold the Big Three accountable if they received a bailout, saying the American taxpayer has a "right to know" specific details about how they plan to succeed if they accept the funding and that top auto executives should "feel blessed" to still have jobs at these companies.

"We must be a country that demands accountability," Cummings said.

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