The first men started showing up before dawn today at the dockworkers' dingy hiring hall on Oldham Street. When the gates opened at 6, they parked their cars in the lot behind the building and queued up in front of six windows, several hundred strong, inside the cavernous hall.

Only 46 of the workers would be dispatched this morning to the docks to do a day's work. The rest would remain to play cards and hope for work at the noon and 6 p.m. calls, or go home or elsewhere to pick up what odd jobs they could.

Like many men who come here and then leave without getting work, 52-year-old Kermit Bowling planned simply to "go home and help my wife wash the dishes. I generally do nothing. I look at the house falling apart."

Said Carl Christian, 40, who said he last worked two or three months ago, "We can't get no jobs so we have to go uptown and find something else to do to make some money. We gotta eat. We gotta pay our bills."

The men are provided, in theory, a guaranteed annual income (GAI) of $32,300, work or no work. But many of them said their real pay is much less. Any vacations, holidays or sick days are deducted and the rules of checking in for available work are so stringent that they often lose income. Moreover, the GAI is paid only quarterly or annually, so their hardship is making it week to week.

(The GAI is paid out of a fund made up of contributions from the Steamship Trade Association, whose members employ the longshoremen, under a contract that expires Sept. 30, 1986.)

Not all their losses are financial, though, the men said. Some spoke of the uncertainty in their day-to-day living, the demoralizing effect of taking money they didn't work for, and the simple lack of something to occupy their days.

When jobs are scarce in the Port of Baltimore, as they increasingly are these days, the hiring hall is packed with men hungry for work.

How precious the jobs are was demonstrated this week when members of International Longshoremen's Association protested the unloading of a Cypriot ship by nonunion labor. In the fracas that ensued, a city police officer driving to the scene in a squad car fatally struck a 59-year-old dockworker.

Jackson H. Taylor, described by co-workers as a fair-minded crew leader and devoted family man, will be memorialized Saturday in a funeral mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church here.

In his honor, no union dockworkers here will work before 1 p.m. Saturday. ILA leaders in New York also called upon dockworkers throughout the nation to stop work from 10 to 10:30 a.m. in Jackson's memory.

Today, the men spoke of Taylor as "our martyr" and vowed to protect the docks from future nonunion incursions. They spoke, too, of the uncertainty of work on the waterfront.

In 1974, ILA members worked 6,331,088 man-hours in the Port of Baltimore. Last year, the figure was 4,026,529, a decline of one-third. The drop is attributable to automated cargo handling, competition from other ports and an overall decline in exports, according to William J. Detweiler, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents 54 firms using ILA labor.

The firms list the work available about 4 p.m. each working day for the following day. The jobs are posted in union halls and local bars frequented by longshoremen. Jobs are assigned to those with highest seniority at 6 p.m. for the following day.

For those who come to the hiring hall faithfully each day and line up at the windows to formally "badge in" and "badge out," there is at least the promise of the GAI.

Pat (Reds) Hurley, 29, has worked a total of 10 hours since Oct. 1. Since the start of the year, he has grossed $11,304, which translates into $7,917 after taxes and other deductions.

He lost three months' work when he broke a hand on the job. So, 340 hours at $17 each -- a total of $5,780 -- was deducted from his GAI.

Hurley, who works with the cargo inside the hulls of ships, did not land a job today. "Ain't no prayer in it," he said.

Job slips are handed out by dispatchers at a long counter at one end of the hall. The men form separate lines according to trades, such as crane operator, truck driver, trimmer and wharf laborer, and they must stay in line or lose out.

"All right, Smiley, you got your job," said a big man wearing an " Addidas cap to a friend who was luckier than he, "so get out of here. That's all the jobs. Now, me and my wife can't eat this week."

They work on a first come, first served basis in accordance with seniority classifications, ranked A to J. Hurley, for example, calls himself "an I-man."

Kermit Bowling is an H-man who lost seniority when he went to work as a printer for several years. He's worked six hours so far this month. Of GAI, he said, "That's welfare. I came to work, not for welfare."

Paul Bruce, 50, hadn't worked all week. "It's rough right now," said Bruce, a crane operator with a seniority rating of F. "I worked two days -- 10 hours -- last week. This week, zappo."

Alfonso Gross, 28, was disabled and came back to the hiring hall in August. But he hasn't worked yet. After the ritual of badging in and out, he goes home and watches television.

"I'm living off God and praying," Gross said.

Some of the men expressed dissatisfaction with their union leaders, others with the politicians whom they say they see only at election time.

Baltimore's urban renaissance, apparent in the Inner Harbor redevelopment a few miles from the hiring hall, means little to them, they say.

"They're eating our waterfront up with Mayor William Donald Schaefer's tourist attractions," said Bowling. "It looks beautiful, but it takes our waterfront away. Now, they want to build a stadium at Camden, west of the Inner Harbor. They say there will be 1,000 jobs, but doing what? Selling popcorn?"

Jackson, the longshoreman who was killed, had badged in and badged out without work when he went to Port Covington, where the Cypriot ship was being unloaded.

John Hightower, 46, a wharf laborer who was with him when he was killed, described his own efforts to dissuade the nonunion workers, some of them men he knew who lived in a halfway house, from unloading the cargo.

Talking to a reporter, Hightower failed to badge out in time. "When nobody's at the window, the [computer] machine shuts down," the man behind the window said. "There's no set time." It was 9 a.m., and Hightower would have a day's pay debited against his guaranteed annual income.

But he was stoical. "I ain't worrying about the $136," he said, "because that man Jack died for me."