Over the last seven weeks, 374 ships traveled up the Delaware River bound for the Philadelphia region's oil refineries and cargo terminals. Another 12 were due to dock here Monday.
This uninterrupted flow of ships is a daily reminder to striking tugboat crews here that their walkout is fizzling.At McAllister Bros. Inc. and Curtis Bay Towing, members of the Seafarers' International Union have been on strike since early October.
Employees of the two companies also are on strike in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. On Friday, SIU negotiators in Baltimore signed a contract with Curtis Bay, but the union membership quickly rejected the pact.
Amid the turmoil of the temporary settlement, Curtis Bay executives notified the striking workers that they must return to work by noon Monday or be fired. Strikers were to meet Monday on the ultimatum.
"We were not able to achieve our goals, but we felt the situation had gotten to the point that this was the best deal we could cut with Curtis Bay," union spokesman Mike Hall said. "They had replaced our workers with scabs and they were operating the boats."
The situation has been the same in Philadelphia, where replacement crews - "scabs and finks" to those walking the line - have manned tugs and kept ships moving on the river.
"In the past," one SIU union official said, "we had a strike and put the boats to the dock and negotiated."
But now, said another: "The old way is obsolete."
From the beginning of this strike, McAllister told employees that if they struck, the replacement crews would be permanent. Officials at Curtis Bay were readying a letter last week to its striking employees telling them they have one last chance to return to work under a new contract or lose their jobs.
Those who man tugboats do one of the most indispensable jobs on the waterfront. Easing oceangoing vessels into their berths requires great skill. Knowing the quirks of current and tides of the Delaware River comes only with long experience.
Their skills have always commanded a handsome price.
According to the management of the tugboat companies and to the men themselves, a tugboat captain would make $50,000 a year. If he worked a lot, he could make much more. Even deck hands would make $180 a day.
Last Thursday, one striking Curtis Bay employee, a mate and relief captain, drove up to a picket line on Delaware Avenue in a late-model Cadillac Seville. He sported a gold pinky ring and gold chains.
"Our fellows do very well and live very well," said a tugboat company executive not involved in the strike.
But for the 80 striking union members, their good life is under stress.
The changing nature of ocean shipping, the oil bust in the Gulf of Mexico and an increasingly hostile attitude toward unions everywhere has made the high price of such labor a key target for management.
During the contract talks that preceded the strike, McAllister and Curtis Bay sought to reduce crew sizes from six to three, to eliminate vacations and holidays, and to cut pay.
Under the old pact at McAllister, for instance, tugboat captains made $11.28 an hour; engineers made $10.37 an hour and deck hands made $9.67 an hour.
Crews worked an average of 13 hours a day. With overtime, a captain would make $214 a day; an engineer, $197, and a deck hand, $183.
As part of its cost-cutting, McAllister wants to pay a captain $155 for a 24-hour period, with no limits on the number of hours or shifts he might have to work. An engineer would get $135 and a deck hand $80.
That such an proposal would be made as a "final offer" is unusual, but it reflects the raw supply-demand equation for tugboat crews.
From the Gulf Coast north, tugboats and their crews are out of work.
For years, large numbers of mobile oil-drilling rigs off the Texas and Louisiana coasts have been idle. In early November, 86 of the 234 available rigs were unused.
The slack drilling business has produced cutbacks in tug service to the offshore rigs andhas resulted in lots of unemployed tugboat crews. Many of those crewmen have moved north in search of work.
At some ports not dependent on oil drilling, tugboat companies have seen a drop in demand for their service because of a decline in the number of ships heading to East Coast ports.
According to SIU officials in Philadelphia and executives of McAllister and of Curtis Bay, the new crews are mostly unemployed tugboat crews from ports from New York to Virginia, and from the Gulf Coast. At McAllister, at least one executive and two relatives of owners also are filling in for strikers.
The availability of such replacement crews has provided both McAllister and Curtis Bay with the power to cripple the SIU's strike.
Said an executive of Curtis Bay, the strikers "don't have any leverage."
The arrival of the replacements has had another effect. It has produced claims by the strikers of damage to ships and docks and of a threat to safety on the waterfront.
While many of the striking crews interviewed last week gave exact examples of damage, neither local maritime officials at those facilities nor investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard could confirm any of them.
One allegation that does appear to be true is that inexperienced crews, without proper licenses, are docking vessels.
Lt. James Crowley of the Coast Guard's investigations unit in Philadelphia said about a dozen crewmen are under investigation for not having proper licenses. No charges have been filed as yet, he said.
According to Lt. Crowley, the Coast Guard is attempting to determine whether the docking pilots, the tug captains who go on board large oceangoing vessels, have endorsements to their licenses that certify they are familiar with local waters.
"In all cases, they have some form of pilots' license. But they do not have endorsements for where they are operating," Lt. Crowley said last week.
As yet, none of inexperienced crews have caused reportable damage to ships or docks, Lt. Crowley said.
But he said: "It is not a desirable situation to have people come in who are unfamiliar with these waters. Nothing has happened yet, but that does mean that it won't happen in the future."
In the meantime, striking SIU members, who have no strike benefits, are working part-time, trying to recoup some of their losses. Many are rotating jobs with others in the union.
Some are finding part-time jobs at Taylor Anderson Towing & Lighterage Co. of Philadelphia, a unionized tugboat company that continues to operate under contract extensions with the SIU.
For others, even part-time work is hard to get.
"You are dealing with a work force that is not highly educated. You're talking about menial work," said Bill Moss, a striking chief engineer with Curtis Bay. "What they know is the whole river. How is anyone going to find employment?"