Truck drivers staged a boycott at two of Baltimore's public marine terminals yesterday, slowing the movement of containerized cargo through the piers and catching the attention of shipping executives who are watching to see how long the protest will last.
No major problems were reported as a result of the boycott, which was organized by independent truckers who say costly delays at the piers are stripping them of their livelihood.
Officials at the port said a serious logjam of cargo would probably take several days to materialize and could hurt business at the port if it continued. They are monitoring the protest and offering to work with the truckers to keep it from growing.
"The traffic is slower, but cargo is moving," said Judi Scioli, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, which owns the city's public marine terminals. "We're watching it closely."
Truckers have been planning the job action for more than a month and have formed a new organization of "owner-operators" who work in the port. Most members own their rigs and make a living hauling cargo containers from the port for a flat fee.
The group, called the Container and Rail Haulers of America, has complained that long delays at the port prohibit members from hauling enough containers each day to make a profit once they pay for fuel and other expenses.
Truck drivers who show up at the piers to haul a container say they have waited three hours or more for the container to be pulled from the dockyard and mounted on a safe chassis.
Beginning yesterday, members refused to pick up from the port containers that were not mounted on wheels and ready to haul.
About 75 truck drivers were picketing the entrances to the Dundalk and Seagirt marine terminals yesterday, carrying signs reading "Unfair Labor Practices" and "Will Work For Pay."
Trucks continued to move in and out of the gates, but most were hauling automobiles or cargo on pallets, not the kind of work the truckers are boycotting. An occasional truck pulled through hauling a container, eliciting hoots and sign-waving from the protesters.
"We sit in there three or four hours with nothing to drink and nothing to eat, and without getting paid, and now we're not going to do it anymore," said Bill Dickens, a truck driver from Dundalk who organized the group.
"We don't want to hurt the trucking companies. We sure don't want to hurt ourselves. But, by God, we're tired of it and we're not going to let it happen to us."
Officials with the steamship lines calling in Baltimore said the boycott did not create a crisis yesterday because some truckers crossed the picket line and because it was a slow day at the port.
None would comment publicly, but several said privately that the boycott had slowed traffic through the port and could force them to find other transportation for their cargo or to ship to other cities if it continues.
Some port managers expressed frustration with the boycott. Delays at the piers are caused by many things, including under-staffing, a shortage of chassis for mounting containers on wheels and an overall trend toward thinner profits in the marine transportation business.
Port officials were optimistic that a resolution could be arranged soon. The Intermodal Council, a group of truckers, dockworkers and steamship executives, has offered to work with the new group to end the boycott.
"I think most of the damage we're going to suffer is from the perception that something is wrong with the port of Baltimore." said Maurice Byan, head of the Steamship Trade Association.
"We have a common goal, improving the service and the efficiency at the port. We're working to do that, and we've invited them to participate."