BALTIMORE — Walt Benewicz was born in the lee of a cargo ship. Along with his mother's voice and touch, he quickly grew to know the song of a ship's horn and the caress of a Chesapeake breeze.
"My backyard was the waterfront," says Mr. Benewicz, chief clerk at the Seagirt Marine Terminal here.
Benewicz's story as a stevedore traces the solid rise, relentless decline, and tentative renewal of a classic blue-collar trade.
Like a waterfront squall, new technology hit Benewicz and other longshoremen hard, sweeping away jobs for nearly 30 years. Today, high tech is helping to stabilize employment and buoy wages.
The turnaround epitomizes the way technology is improving the fortunes of workers in many blue-collar sectors even while it slices payrolls in others.
"Technology is coming around for us now. It's helping to raise our wages," says Thomas Benewicz, a longshoreman like his younger brother, Walt.
For years, though, technology was the bane of a livelihood that had flourished during the first six decades of the century.
Many stevedores, like Benewicz's Polish-American grandfather, stepped off a ship from Europe and stayed on the dock for a steady job with good pay.
They settled in pinched, two-story row houses crammed tight to the sidewalks. Their neighborhoods of East Baltimore and Locust Point became narrow footholds in America's middle class.
But in the mid-1960s, automation started to carve up the ranks of longshoremen nationwide.
Stevedores no longer "humped" cargo on their backs. Instead, they connected 40-foot containers to cranes that whisked away hours of muscle work.
Work crews shrank from 60 to 15 men, unloading times from three days to eight hours, and longshoremen ranks fell more than 60 percent nationally.
"Automation, computers hit us real bad," says Walt Benewicz.
Now, however, technology works alongside the stevedores. Management has spent roughly $1 million in high-tech training for them, and computers have created about 20 new jobs on the waterfront in Baltimore, says Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association.
A small crew of longshoremen, for instance, can now handle a broad range of tonnage, reducing the need for part-time workers.
That gives stevedores more negotiating leverage. They won a contract last year that will raise their hourly wages from $23 to $25 by 2000.
Indeed, a longshoreman today is as likely to wear spectacles and carry a computer as he is to wear a watch cap and swing a crane hook. Computers track the flow of cargo from port gate to cargo hold and record the movement of a container over the years.
"There are so many good things you can do with a computer," says Walt Benewicz.
Time, too, seems to be on the longshoreman's side. Across the East Coast, retirement in the next few years will open up about 6,000 jobs, says Jim McNamara, spokesman for the International Longshoremen's Association in New York.
In Long Beach, Calif., 10,000 candidates are vying for 2,000 part-time stevedore jobs, paying as much as $60,000 a year.