BALTIMORE -- Work for International Longshoremen's Association members at the city's port dropped to its lowest point in four decades during the contract year just ended, officials say.

The Steamship Trade Association said about 2,300 members of the ILA worked slightly less than 3.1 million hours for the 12 months ending Sept. 30.

That is a decline of 300,000 man-hours from the previous year, and is the steepest drop in three years.

Officials said it also is the smallest number of hours worked since the association began keeping man-hour records in 1947.

Figured as a 2,080-hour work year, the decline is comparable to the loss of 144 full-time dockworkers' jobs.

Since 1980, man-hours at the port have been cut almost in half from 5.8 million.

"We think it's bottomed out," said William Detweiler, president of the STA. "It seems the trend of the past years is not declining. It seems to have stabilized."

Recent months have seen a leveling off, and in some cases, slight increases in man-hours.

An increase in imports related to ongoing foreign currency changes, which have made goods manufactured in the United States more affordable for foreign consumers, should help in the coming year, Detweiler said.

He attributed this year's decline to "the drift of work South, the effect of deregulation and cost."

Heightened productivity also has cut into ILA work. Deregulation of railroads has changed the way customers are billed for the cargo that is moved.

Railroads no longer charge strictly according to distance.

That practice favored Baltimore's port because of its location relative to other East Coast ports.

The Virginia ports of Hampton Roads benefited. Unionized longshoremen there worked 2.04 million hours during the period, compared to 2.06 million the previous year.

Richard Hughes, Atlantic Coast district vice president of the ILA, said that entry into the union has been strictly limited in recent years, and that 197 members took advantage of early retirement incentives last year.

Miles Maquire, director of public affairs for the Maryland Port Administration, said, "I think everybody recognizes the problem and we hope this is the down point."