Sal Catucci does well in abandoned places.

Three years ago, Atlantic Container Line gave up on the stevedoring business and idled its container terminal here. But in January, Mr. Catucci brought the property back to life as a container freight station after a larger stevedore, Maher Terminals Inc., decided to get out of that business.Now that the operator of Red Hook, Brooklyn's last container terminal, has decided to abandon that facility, Mr. Catucci, president of American Stevedoring Ltd., may get a chance at the big time. If he does, it would represent the success of a businessman who has nurtured particularly strong ties to labor and who has developed a reputation for being willing to get his hands dirty by leaving the office and going to the terminal.

"Sal is hands-on," said an executive with another terminal operator. "He gets out there and talks to the foreman and the men and gets things done."

"He gave me a new spirit," said one checker at the Elizabeth facility where shipments too small to be in their own ocean containers are packed and unpacked for reshipment, a process called stripping and stuffing.

But getting out on the warehouse floor and being a good motivator is just a part of the story of Mr. Catucci's success.

In an era when many business executives wish to abandon their ties to costly organized labor, Mr. Catucci has instead pursued a path of strongly tying his fortunes to the longshore unions.

His ties to the International Longshoremen's Association union are deep. As the New York stevedoring industry fled the once-teeming Brooklyn waterfront over the past few decades to do containerized work at airport-sized terminals in New Jersey, Mr. Catucci found work handling bags of coffee and cocoa for many Brooklyn ILA members who would otherwise have been idle.

Now that Universal Maritime Services, a unit of Maersk Line of Denmark, has told the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that it will leave Red Hook on Dec. 31, Mr. Catucci may get to handle containers in Brooklyn, also.

"That pier can thrive again," said the 55-year-old Mr. Catucci. "The Brooklyn labor (force) is excellent."

Although a number of other operators have looked at the terminal, besides Mr. Catucci only International Terminal Operating Co. and Meehan Terminals are seriously interested, knowledgeable sources said.

"We're talking to the customers and the port," said ITO's president, Jim Field. "We have to make sure that it's economically viable."

Many in the industry consider Red Hook's economic viability questionable

because of its small size and its poor highway and rail connections. The terminal's continued existence is widely viewed as due primarily to the bi- state port authority's need to satisfy its New York constituents, including New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who has veto power over major authority actions.

The authority has put millions of dollars into saving the terminal. Recently, it approved $2.3 million to continue a barge service linking Red Hook with the authority's New Jersey facilities.

''We need a little help from the city and from the port authority" to make Red Hook succeed, said Mr. Catucci.

Mr. Catucci currently gets a lot of help from the ILA. In fact, there is a particularly strong symbiosis between Mr. Catucci and the members of the ILA here. Union members know that without Mr. Catucci and his highly efficient stripping and stuffing operation, their jobs probably wouldn't exist in the face of stiff competition from non-union operators and from companies employing labor from other unions with lower wage scales.

And for Mr. Catucci the union provides substantial subsidies from a joint union-management fund designed to guarantee that mechanization and automation do not eliminate work for ILA members. Money is paid into the so-called container freight station fund from lucrative container operations and is used to subsidize wages and benefits at operations like Mr. Catucci's container freight station that are less lucrative, but that employ relatively large numbers of workers.

''Container freight stations tend to be labor-intensive," said David Tolan, who, as chairman of the Carriers Container Council employers group, helped negotiate the contract provision that created the container station fund. "I think there is a real opportunity to generate man-hours and to meet the needs of the shipping public by furthering the expansion of container freight stations."

At Mr. Catucci's container station, for example, nearly as much labor is employed as at Red Hook, even though far more cargo is handled at the Brooklyn container terminal.

''We want to get the work back that belongs to the longshoremen," said Mr. Catucci.

In addition to Red Hook, Mr. Catucci is also trying to expand his Elizabeth business by operating one of the centralized examination stations U.S. Customs is setting up in the Newark area. American Stevedoring is one of 17 applicants for the stations.

"We're reviewing every proposal and application," said Kathleen Haage, Customs' Newark area director.

Meanwhile, as he waits for word about his hoped-for expansions, Mr. Catucci seems to be enjoying himself as he patrols his Elizabeth terminal, walkie- talkie in hand, enthusiastically greeting his employees, including his son Kevin and the dozen or so other Catuccis that are employed there.

''My brother worked in a bank for 23 years and to him it was just a job," said Mr. Catucci. "This is a different business where with everything you do, you can see what you're doing," he said as a forklift rushed by on its way to pick up another pallet of cargo.