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Truckers protest delays at port of Baltimore's container terminal

Dozens of truck drivers are picketing outside the port of Baltimore’s booming container terminal in sub-freezing temperatures this week, protesting delays they say have left them waiting in their trucks as long as eight hours to pick up one container of cargo.

Massive new ships transiting the expanded Panama Canal have brought record numbers of containers to Seagirt Marine Terminal, which is managed by Ports America Chesapeake under a 50-year, $1.3 billion deal inked in 2009 with the Maryland Port Administration.

The company paid for port dredging and four super-sized cranes, but truck drivers like David Ross say it hasn’t scaled up with adequate labor and equipment to handle the work. Ross was one of the roughly 50 truckers who picketed Wednesday outside the terminal’s entrance on Broening Highway.

“Management’s trying to get more for less,” said Ross, a second-generation trucker who lives in Rosedale. “They’re not putting on the right amount of crews to handle the volume of the trucks.”

Many of the port’s truckers are independent, hired by trucking firms to move containers in and out of the port to customers. They typically get paid for every load they move, so any delays eat into their bottom line.

Bayard Hogans, vice president of Ports America Chesapeake, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The delays have been occurring for more than a year. In January 2018, Ports America Chesapeake announced the delivery of six new yard cranes for $12 million, saying they hoped it would alleviate the truck congestion.

Seagirt closed its gates to trucks for more than two hours Jan. 24, attributing the move to “ongoing labor action,” which International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 President Scott Cowan disputed; he argued the closure was caused by excessive congestion in the terminal.

“It was too many trucks in the yard,” he said. “It’s just busy. All our men are on the job working.”

The ILA local and the Steamship Trade Association, which includes Ports America Chesapeake as a member, have agreed on new work rules “that will promote improved work productivity and reduced truck processing times at the Seagirt Marine Terminal,” Maryland Port Administration spokesman Richard Scher said.

“The Port Administration will continue to assist all interested parties, including truckers, with work productivity issues at Seagirt,” Scher said in a statement.

Cowan confirmed that the local resolved its recent labor disputes with management this week. He declined to elaborate on the problems at the terminal, but he said he planned to visit the picketing truckers to see what the ILA local could do to help.

“I’m going to ask them what they think the problem is,” Cowan said. “We need the truckers. Without them moving the cargo, we don’t have anything.”

Several truckers who continued working Wednesday honked in support as they passed their picketing colleagues at the terminal entrance.

Pamela Miller, who has worked as a trucker servicing the port of Baltimore for 40 years, held a sign that said: “I’m tired of sitting in the port. So I’m taking a stand.”

Miller, 60, who organized the protests, said she doesn’t know the exact reasons for the delays. But the six-to-eight-hour waits aren’t just an economic problem for truckers. Once they’re in line on the terminal, she said, those truckers can’t get out to go to the bathroom.

“It’s not only a financial issue,” she said. “It’s a health issue.”

Miller and others said they want answers about why the delays have gone unaddressed.

“Somebody needs to explain why and fix the problem,” she said. “If Ports America Chesapeake needs more machinery and they need to bring in more ILA workers, that’s what they need to do.”

Even when the gates are closed to trucks or labor action causes slowdowns at the terminal, Miller noted, the ships continue to be loaded and unloaded to make sure the shipping lines don’t opt to use other East Coast ports.

“They work the ships hard and heavy because if they don’t turn them in a timely manner, then they get fined, or the ships won’t come here,” she said. “But they let us sit in there for hours on end.”

Julie Sinclair, operations manager for Chesapeake Plywood, which imports plywood through the port, said the delays cost her company more than just the extra hourly wages for drivers who are sitting for eight hours at a time.

Leaving a container on the terminal for more than three days results in a $450-a-day fee known as demurrage, without which the port won’t release the cargo, said Sinclair, who joined the picket Wednesday in support of the truckers.

Those fees, plus the extra trucker wages, can more than double overall shipping costs, she said.

“That all goes into the cost of the wood, which gets billed to my customers,” Sinclair said. “So, now if I sell you a piece of plywood for $30, I’ve got to charge you $34 now, because I had to add $400 more money into the wood for a driver sitting here waiting for the container for hours.

“Ultimately, you’re paying the bill, if you’re buying the plywood.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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