Baltimore Union fears loss of 2 400 jobs on bridge collapse

The Baltimore bridge collapse is poised to leave thousands without work and there’s no firm plan yet about how to help them, the local president of the International Longshoremen’s Association said.

“I have 2 400 ILA members who are soon going to be without jobs,” Scott Cowan, president of the labour union’s Baltimore local, said in an interview Wednesday. “Getting them on the payroll, and keeping their families fed, putting food on the table is my first and foremost thought on my mind.”

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Baltimore’s port is closed after the container ship Dali slammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday, causing it to collapse into the water. Six people are presumed dead. The port, which handles everything from lumber to cars, is expected to remain closed until the channel can be cleared — a process that according to one supply-chain executive could take until May.

Dock workers are hired daily based on what’s needed, without a guarantee of pay if the port is shut down, Cowan said. As a result, union members have been reaching out wondering “what are they going to do to get paid,” he said.

“It’s a very good job with very good benefits, and family-sustaining,” he said. But “they are daily-hire jobs. They are not guaranteed jobs.”

Help may be on the way. The federal government spoke with the ILA and the port director, and officials are looking into how to assist if there’s no work, Cowan said. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that’s one of his top priorities.

“These longshore workers, if goods aren’t moving, they’re not working,” Buttigieg said at a briefing Wednesday.

He didn’t estimate how long it will take to remove the debris. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Gautier said salvage teams will first have to remove remains of the bridge from the ship, then refloat the vessel and move it. After that, they can reopen the port.

Maryland state lawmakers are preparing a bill to provide emergency assistance to those affected by the disaster, and Governor Wes Moore is also looking at ways to give support. Moore’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ILA international union is also working on a plan to provide members relief, while port employers “have been very helpful” and plan to pay some union members to do facilities maintenance, Cowan said.

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“Things are in motion but it’s only a day old – we don’t have any clear answers or path yet,” Cowan said. “We’re putting measures in place, but there’s nothing concrete yet.”

Some work is still going on receiving and delivering cargo out of a container terminal but that is likely to dry up this week, Cowan said. Labour and management will work together to reopen terminals as soon as possible once the channel is reopened, and he expressed hope that the disruption won’t last more than a few weeks.

“We’ve been through the Covid-19 pandemic, which was very tragic, but the cargo kept moving,” said Cowan, an international vice president of ILA. “We’ve never had anything like this.”

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