Dock pact OK is seen; Wallenius Wilhelmsen would have way clear to develop new hub; The port


Leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association say they now have enough votes to approve a labor contract addendum with Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the port of Baltimore's largest shipping line.

Local 1429 of the ILA voted 67-4 yesterday to accept work rules changes that were a cornerstone of Wallenius Wilhelmsen's plans to consolidate much of its East Coast operations in Baltimore. Despite the low turnout among the union's roughly 130 members, the count gives proponents of the contract addendum the votes needed to overrule the much larger cargo handlers' union, which voted 235-189 last week against the agreement.

Two much smaller unions - Locals 1355 and 921 - voted Monday. Those results were not available by last night, but other union leaders said those two locals voted in favor of the work rules changes.

"That means we've got a contract with Wallenius [Wilhelmsen]," said Paul Kursch, president of Local 1429.

Approval of the work rules changes was supported by union leadership and Maryland port officials, and it seems to clear the way for development of a new East Coast cargo hub that would substantially increase the volume of autos, farm equipment and other roll-on/roll-off cargo that has become one of the few sources of growth for the port in recent years.

The deal may face one more challenge. Union leaders anticipate that the voting will undergo a routine review by the ILA's international organization to determine whether the pact runs afoul of the union's bylaws.

At issue would be whether union leaders can take the total votes of all the Longshoremen's locals and count it as one combined tally, rather than requiring each of the four locals to approve the contract individually. Union leaders say the bylaws allow contact matters that affect all Longshoremen's unions in the port to be decided by the combined membership.

"I cannot see the international saying we're in violation here. Period," Kursch said.

Maryland port officials say it's time to get on with building the facility for the shipping line.

"I think it [yesterday's vote] is the real voice of the port; that we want to handle more cargo and we want to accommodate the customers," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

If it stands, as expected, the vote will represent a reversal of fortunes for Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which was anticipating another defeat after Local 333, the cargo handlers' union, rejected the contract a second time last week. The company had threatened to initiate negotiations with other East Coast ports after Local 333 rejected the rules changes by 357-57 in April.

The steamship line is the world's largest carrier of automobiles, farm equipment and heavy machinery, making it the top player in a business that Maryland port officials have targeted in their marketing efforts.

Such "ro/ro" cargo and breakbulk cargoes have helped mitigate the port's steady loss of container business over the past several years.

In exchange for a 10-year lease from Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the Maryland Port Administration has pledged up to 150 acres at the Dundalk Marine Terminal or South Locust Point to accommodate the carrier's expansion.

The deal also could include construction of parking lots, piers, processing buildings and other infrastructure. The port has $10 million budgeted for the first phase of the three-phase project.

For their part, Longshoremen were asked to be more flexible about the times when they will report to work.

The contract addendum calls for two additional start times, which the shipping line says will make it easier to avoid having to pay for idle labor when a vessel is late arriving in port.

The union also was asked to allow 15-member work gangs to be split among different cargoes under certain circumstances. Currently, members of each work group are not allowed to stray from their assigned tasks.

Both provisions were resisted by a majority of Local 333 members who voted on the proposal. Wages were never an issue in the pact, which is not scheduled to take effect until 2001.

In separate balloting, ILA members voted Monday to approve a three-year extension to the union's master contract, which covers ILA members in Gulf and Atlantic ports.

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