The port of Baltimore's largest Longshoremen's local is preparing to admit its first new members in almost 20 years, a move made necessary by its older work force and a logjam of cargo on certain days of the week.
The International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 in Locust Point, which represents cargo handlers, will vote Jan. 5 on whether to admit 50 new members. The local has about 700 workers, whose average age is over 55.
Local 333 last admitted new members in the late 1970s, then closed its membership rolls as cargo handling became increasingly automated and the number of merchant ships calling in Baltimore dropped.
The union's hall on Hull Street was closed yesterday afternoon, and President Doug Wagner could not be reached for comment. But a letter posted by the door announced the vote next month; the decision was reached Tuesday at the union's regular meeting.
"People have left and we've gotten smaller," said John Blom, a member of the local for 22 years. "We just need more people to keep up with the work."
The move comes as officials with the Maryland Port Administration pursue a deal that could nearly triple the amount of container cargo moving through Baltimore's public marine terminals.
Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc., two of the world's largest steamship lines, are searching for a new East Coast hub, and Baltimore is among their candidates.
Eight company executives -- four from Maersk and four from Sea-Land -- visited Baltimore yesterday to meet with port administration officials and tour the Dundalk Marine Terminal, according to a source from one of the shipping lines.
Port officials would not discuss the negotiations, but the deal would require extensive renovations at Dundalk and new cranes to accommodate the large ships of the two companies.
A list of cities considered finalists for the new terminal was expected to be announced this week, but spokesmen for the companies now say the announcement will likely come next week.
Local 333's decision to seek new members was unrelated to the prospect that Maersk and Sea-Land would come to Baltimore, bringing as many as 550,000 cargo containers a year. That deal likely would require many more dockworkers.
With its current work force, Local 333 has had trouble staffing the piers on busy days when several ships are in port. The number of cargo handlers is stretched thin, particularly on Thursdays.
"It depends on the days of the week, but sometimes there is a shortage," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents major employers in the port.
The situation is compounded by the port's success in attracting automobiles and other roll-on/roll-off cargo, such as farm equipment -- cargo that has resisted trends toward automation and must be driven on and off ships.
Members of Local 333 are responsible for loading and unloading ships and moving cargo around all of the port's public terminals and some of its privately owned ones.
Members check with the union hall each day for available work, which is handed out based on seniority. Members typically do not work every day of the week, particularly the younger ones.
Gone are the days when Longshoremen were guaranteed an annual income regardless of how much work was available. They are paid only when they work, at rates established by a five-year contract that expires in 2001.
Workers handling break-bulk cargo such as steel and paper products make $19 an hour; container cargo pays $25 an hour under a master contract negotiated with 20 American ports.
Baltimore's Longshoremen worked just under 2 million man-hours during the last contract year, which ended Sept. 30 -- a steady decline from the more than 6 million annual man-hours in the early 1970s.
Several other ILA locals represent workers in Baltimore, including those who operate cranes and repair cargo containers.
Pub Date: 12/04/98