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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)

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Thursday morning, 40 or so men were in the union hall, a drab building on South Oldham Street around the bend from the port, awaiting a call. At 6 a.m., a computer message arrived from P&O. It was up to Fontaine, the senior dispatcher for the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333, to fill the work orders.

"I need two lashers, one groundman and a Paceco," Fontaine boomed over his microphone to the men waiting in the gymnasium-like hall. P&O wanted two men to secure equipment with heavy chains, one to give directions as equipment is driven around and unloaded, and another to operate a Paceco crane.

Men who qualified filed past Fontaine, scanning their ID badges into his computer, which sorted them by seniority. Men's pictures popped up on the screen, and the computer spat out the names of the four guys who would get those jobs, with tickets for the docks.

They headed to the Dundalk terminal with a 44-year-old Harford County resident named Surrendor McKnight, a union member known as a gang carrier who oversees the crew on the ground.

"Gotta go, gotta hustle," said McKnight.

They drove off into the cold, dark morning, parking close to the ship.

"Men," Fontaine called out to them, "welcome to another day in paradise."

"That's it, Joe?" one man who was not picked yelled.

"Yeah," Fontaine answered as the men settled down to car magazines and chess, waiting for the next call, which would come a half-hour later.

Local 333, with 2,000 members in Baltimore, has six-year contracts with P&O (the current one expires in 2010) and the other terminal operators. The union allows only U.S. citizens to join, and security screening is required. Many are the sons and grandsons of longshoremen; they are racially diverse, and about 50 members are women.

"No one in this is guaranteed 40 a week," Fontaine said. Some men stay in the hall for 24 hours, waiting for jobs that pay $17 to $30 an hour, and while the money can be good, it is not easily earned.

"On any given day, you might not go home to your family," Fontaine said. "Guys have heart attacks out there. You're moving heavy equipment."


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