Port of Baltimore

Port of Baltimore (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun / January 16, 2014)

The port of Baltimore's continuing labor dispute, which boiled over in a three-day dockworkers strike in October before a three-month "cooling-off" period, now simmers with uncertainty.

Labor peace in the port seems precarious. A contract covering the handling of vehicles and other local matters has expired, and workers voted down a new contract. The union says it won't strike and management says it won't lock out the dockworkers.

The only certainty is that the port has lost work, and some of it might never return, port officials said.

"I had a conversation with one of our major exporters for automobiles, and they have told me that they have diverted cars to another port," James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said in a recent interview. "I asked them, 'Once we're through this, and we will get through it, will those cars return to Maryland?' And they said, 'No.' "

White declined to identify the exporter.

Even though management and the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 sat down for talks again last week, a solution appears as elusive as it did when the union went on strike in October after years of working under temporary extensions to a previous, expired local contract.

The strike and subsequent cargo diversions meant dockworkers logged about 30,000 fewer hours between October and January compared to the same period last year, said Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents port employers. That's the equivalent of a 40-hour week's work for 750 people.

Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, president of Local 333, declined to comment.

"There's a feeling that an additional strike or work stoppage is unlikely, but as long as this drags on and is not resolved, it really hurts the reputation of the port of Baltimore as a reliable business," said Matthew Kobussen, global logistics manager for Baltimore-based customs broker Shapiro, which works with some of the port's largest shipping companies.

Shippers and importers "don't like uncertainty," Kobussen said.

"What's being said out in the hinterlands, out in the global community, is that Baltimore has unrest and they have labor problems, don't go there," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman and an adviser to the port administration.

Bentley said the dispute is damaging the port more than any labor situation has since the late 1980s, when Baltimore fought to dispel a reputation that its longshoremen wouldn't work in rain. The port has had strong labor stability since and managed to win business away from other ports, including New York and New Jersey, but that is threatened now, she said.

Local 333 officials have said they are sensitive to such concerns, but members will continue to vote down the proposed contract without further negotiation.

The union wants more say in assigning senior longshoremen to jobs, a discipline system that doesn't shut workers out pending reviews, and a more transparent system for how local "gangs" are chosen for jobs, McKenzie has said.

Port employers call those issues "housekeeping" matters that can be negotiated after the proposed local contract — which they say offers substantial pay increases — is signed.

Both parties appear entrenched in their positions, though the union's focus has shifted to the $3.8 million in damages a federal arbitrator ordered it to pay to shipping lines for losses during the strike.

The arbitrator found the union's walkout violated a "no-strike" provision in the master contract, which covers container cargo at all East Coast ports.

When longshoremen arrived at Local 333's Locust Point union hall to vote on the proposed contract in February, they found a letter from ILA Atlantic Coast District President Dennis Daggett posted near the door. The letter urged the longshoremen to vote against the contract to give union officials more leverage to reduce the damages.

The national ILA's presence should hasten negotiations, said Michael LeRoy, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied port labor.

"They can go in and take control of the local," he said. "I think, in time, the cooler heads will work through the issues."