Members of a longshoremen's union at odds with port of Baltimore employers will vote next week on whether to accept the employers' "best and final" contract offer.
The contract has been on the table for weeks, and union members have disagreed over whether to sign it.
The secret ballot vote, scheduled for Feb. 11, has the potential to end an extended stalemate between the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents employers.
It also could throw the issue of labor stability further into question at the port if the union's members vote to reject the proposal, as their leadership is urging.
"We want them to vote the contract down and to vote it down strong because it's a bad contract," said Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, the union's president, on behalf of the union's wage scale committee, which governs contract negotiations for the union.
"It's a bad contract because it does not fix [any] of the wrong things that this contract has put on this membership," McKenzie said. "If the membership votes for this contract, they're going to be more messed up than before."
The local contract applies to handling of automobiles, forest products and other break bulk cargo. A separate master contract for container cargo at all East Coast ports is in place already.
Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, welcomed the vote.
"It's good news that it's going to a vote, so that the membership can decide," he said. Employers believe their offer is an attractive one for the longshoremen, he said, and he hopes the union membership "sees the value" of it.
McKenzie said the proposed local contract does not address many issues union officials believe need to be dealt with, including rules for how daily jobs are assigned to members and how disciplinary action is meted out.
A recent ruling by a federal arbitrator ordering the union to pay employers $3.8 million in damages for revenue lost during a three-day strike in October also needs to be discussed further, he said.
Those damages were awarded last month after an arbitrator ruled the strike had violated a "no-strike" provision in the master contract.
The longshoremen will cast secret ballots during a day-long voting process on Feb. 11. The union will hold a separate meeting the night before to inform members of what is at stake, McKenzie said.
He did not say whether a vote against the contract would mean a second strike. The union and port employers have promised in recent weeks not to strike or force a lock out, respectively, despite lacking a contract.
Port officials have confirmed, but not quantified, cargo diversions at the port in recent weeks, particularly after a 90-day "cooling off" period that followed the strike ended.
Angelos said he is hopeful the contract "will pass to provide stability to the port of Baltimore, save jobs and stop cargo from diverting."
The $3.8 million in damages owed by the union would not play a role in the labor contract, he said, but will be discussed separately with the union.
"The parties should meet and discuss the damages and determine what the best course of action is," Angelos said.