Labor peace at the port


By agreeing to a two-year extension on its existing contract, local members of the International Longshoremen's Association have given the Port of Baltimore a big boost -- an assist that should help port officials lure more cargo business up the Chesapeake. That will mean more jobs for ILA workers, who have seen manpower on the docks plunge in the past 15 years.

The 955-144 vote to approve the contract illustrates the new, cooperative attitude that local ILA leaders brought to the bargaining table. It also illustrates that management no longer seems intent on engaging in a power struggle with the ILA. Both sides now understand that labor disputes only weaken the port's competitive position.

"It gives carriers peace of mind knowing they can move the cargo and the guys peace of mind knowing they will have a job," said Edward Burke, ILA president of the big Local 333. The contract provides the kind of stability this port must have if it intends to attract more steamship cargo.

Previous labor tensions discouraged international carriers from shipping through Baltimore. Many have since fled to Norfolk. The three-day ILA strike in 1989 hurt port marketing efforts for several years. But now a new chapter seems to have opened.

The results can be seen in the brightening picture on the docks. Evergreen Marine Corp. Ltd. of Taiwan, one of the biggest container ship operators, recently signed an agreement to extend its lease at the state-of-the-art Seagirt Marine Terminal until 1997. One of the reasons for this lease extension: a much-improved labor climate.

Port Administrator Adrian Teel has revamped his state agency, zeroed in on marketing strategy and managed to show a profit for two straight years. He's also been helped by legislative approval of a semi-autonomous port commission set up to run the waterfront agency more like a private-sector business.

Future dealings with the ILA, though, might revive some of the old problems. Baltimore remains at a competitive disadvantage because of the guaranteed annual income provision of the contract. This ensures all ILA members a paycheck, even if there aren't any ships to work. Cost to management: $12 million. The GAI is sure to be a hot topic of discussion in 1996.

For now, though, everyone at the port can concentrate on improving operating efficiency and corraling more cargo business for Baltimore. A strong Port of Baltimore is essential if the state's economy is to bounce out of its prolonged slump. Mr. Teel and the ILA have the port headed in the right direction.

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