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At Port of Baltimore, Debate Hits The Docks

Joe Fontaine of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 said he has reservations about Dubai Ports World's proposed acquisition.
Joe Fontaine of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 said he has reservations about Dubai Ports World's proposed acquisition. (Robert A. Reeder)
By Dana Hedgpeth and Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 26, 2006

BALTIMORE -- Just before 7 a.m., a half-dozen burly men in bright orange jumpsuits and hard hats walked through the dense fog at the Maryland docks and into the heart of a debate over the security of America's ports.

Every day at the Port of Baltimore, ships flying the flags of Malaysia and Hong Kong, Liberia and Panama steam in and out carrying cars and timber, spices and grain, and who-knows-what-else. The men in the orange jumpsuits pluck the goods out of the bellies of the ships using giant cranes or roll them down ramps to the concrete tundra that is their workplace. Longshoremen are agents of global capitalism with only two goals: Keep the goods moving, and keep warm.

Most of the time, theirs is a world of steel ships and windswept piers, of diesel fuel and battered containers. And, in the past week, a debate echoing the ones on cable news channels: Should Dubai Ports World be allowed to buy terminal operations at Baltimore and five other U.S. ports from Britain-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.?

Mark Montgomery, who oversees P&O operations at the Baltimore port, said little would change after the purchase. The New Jersey native and his staff of 65 administrative employees who run the docks would remain in place, he said, same as the last time their corporate parentage changed, in 1999. He reports to bosses in New Jersey; they report to London; and after the deal, the Londoners will report to Dubai.

Out on the docks, the longshoremen have more varied opinions. "Given the situation with 9/11 and all the money that was channeled through the United Arab Emirates, and now you're selling a major port operation to them," Joe Fontaine, the senior dispatcher for the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333, said Thursday. "Uh-uh. That just doesn't sit well with me."

Charles "Chaz" DiGristine, who's been working the docks for eight years as a longshoreman, said his 64-year-old mother called him the other night, worried that they were "selling the Port of Baltimore to a Middle Eastern company."

"She was freaking out," DiGristine said. "I told her: 'Mama, nobody's selling the port. It's owned by the state. One company is buying another company. It's not that big a deal.' "

Ports such as Baltimore's serve as America's gateways to the rest of the world. Eight million tons of cargo cross Baltimore's piers a year, and the volume and numbers of people needed to move it make security a constant challenge. A day at the Port of Baltimore shows how these complexities play out on the ground.

The port, owned by the state of Maryland, has five major terminals that are leased to British, Danish, Japanese and American companies. Britain-based P&O operates the largest of them, the Seagirt Marine Terminal, where most cargo shipped in large containers is handled, along with part of the nearby Dundalk Marine Terminal, which handles mainly cars and construction machinery.

Early Thursday morning, as the sun was making an unsuccessful attempt to pierce the fog, 20 ships lay in wait at the P&O terminals. Some had arrived the day before. Others had sailed up the channel from the Chesapeake Bay during the night, with a local pilot guiding them to a berth. The American-owned Independence had come from Charleston, S.C., bound for the Middle East. The MSC Tasmania, Swiss-owned and sailing under the Malaysian flag, had come from South America, loaded with lumber, furniture and machinery, and would leave Baltimore for Charleston.

P&O is a stevedore, a company hired by shipping lines to oversee the loading and unloading of ships. And it is a terminal operating company, moving cargo on and off trucks and rail cars.

Its managers tell the longshoremen who perform the work under contract when and where to move what. Every day here in Baltimore, P&O takes care of an average of three ships and hires up to 900 longshoremen, sending out computer messages or calling the union hiring hall with job orders.

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