BALTIMORE – Men with criminal pasts in need of a job have long turned to the one industry here that would take them — the waterfront.
But many of the same longshoremen who found a solid paycheck at the Port of Baltimore worry that could change under a 2002 law that aims to protect American ports from terrorism.
The law requires criminal background checks for longshoremen and other dockworkers, who could lose their jobs if they have a conviction in their past. The Department of Homeland Security is still developing rules for the checks and could not say when they might take effect — but anytime is too soon for longshoremen here.
“The waterfront has saved a lot of people, man. I mean a lot,” said Anthony White, 36, a second-generation longshoreman who has been at the Port of Baltimore for five years.
White conceded that he has a felony conviction — for a crime he refused to talk about — that is 17 years old. He said he knows several other longshoremen with records. He worries about their families. He questions how they will pay their bills.
“You got your life together,” said White. “Why do they want to take that away from you? You have a car payment and a house payment. What are you supposed to do?”
Like others here, he thinks workers who have done time should be able to put their pasts behind them.
“I don’t think it will affect me, but it will affect a lot of people,” said White.
It might not affect White. Felony convictions up to seven years old would be grounds for dismissal under the law, but dockworkers could also be fired if the Department of Homeland Security determines they pose a terrorism risk.
Officials at the International Longshoremen’s Association, the union that represents longshoremen at Baltimore and other East Coast ports, guess that 200 to 300 of the nearly 2,000 registered union longshoremen in Baltimore will lose their jobs under the new security rules.
Union and industry officials said the background checks probably will mirror those used in airports, where workers can be fired if they have been convicted of any of 28 felonies, ranging from murder to drug use.
But until the Transportation Security Administration releases a list of offenses that will be cause for dismissal, no one knows for sure who will be cut. That has longshoremen apprehensive.
“We don’t want to lose any,” said Roland Day, the walking delegate of ILA Local 333.
But port and homeland defense officials said they have to think of security first.
Chet Lunner, the assistant administrator of TSA’s Office of Maritime and Land Security, said at a February conference on port security that a terrorist attack at a major U.S. port would cause $1 trillion in damage — spreading from the port itself to international shipping and trade.
The goal of the background checks for longshoremen is to make sure nothing like that happens, said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser.
“There are a great deal of assets at ports and there could be a lot of damage,” Kayser said. “We want to make sure those ports are secure.”
To do that, TSA will hand out identification cards to longshoremen who pass background checks. The cards, which are currently being developed, will have a photo and a biometric indicator, like a fingerprint. Longshoremen will pass the cards through a reader to enter secure areas of a port.
“You will know that the person is not a terrorist, has had a background check and more important, that that person is that person,” Kayser said.
But union officials worry about worker privacy and potential management access to the readers.
“The readers amount to a time clock,” said Mike Ingrao, secretary treasurer of the transportation trades department of the AFL-CIO.
But Chuck Carroll, general counsel for the National Association of Waterfront Employers, said longshoremen are overreacting. In the past, he noted, they have been able to dodge laws regulating other transportation workers.
“We are the only segment that does not have mandatory drug tests,” because longshoremen do not have a license that can be pulled like a pilot or a commercial driver, Carroll said.
Longshoremen said they understand the threat of terrorism, but they object to the idea that they are a security risk.
On a recent morning at the Highlandtown dispatching center, where hundreds of longshoremen stood in a gymnasium-size room for the first job call of the day, Roland Day said TSA has taken the wrong approach to securing the waterfront.
“They should give some kind of training to longshoremen to be the first line of defense instead of trying to exclude us,” he said. “If something explodes, we are going to be the first to die.”
When the background checks begin, the longshoremen want current union members to be grandfathered in. Many of these men began working here long ago when the work was hard, dirty and dangerous.
Now much of the work is automated.
“It’s a desirable job now. That’s why we are having all the problems,” Day said. “We built the place, now it’s the hell with us.”
-30- CNS 03-12-04