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."
National ILA officials, including Daggett, have repeatedly declined to comment.
Bill Nichols, who said he has worked Baltimore's docks under Local 333 since 2002, said many members have "put a lot of faith" in Daggett.
"There are a lot of people's livelihoods at stake here, so I'm hoping he does us fair," Nichols said.
Angelos said the Steamship Trade Association and the United States Maritime Alliance, which represents container shippers awarded the damages, are involved in negotiations with Daggett.
Angelos said he is "optimistic" a solution will be reached soon, though White said he's worried that getting the six organizations that were awarded damages to agree on a reduction may be difficult.
Angelos, White and other officials have been tight-lipped about the labor dispute's effects: They confirm, but won't detail, cargo diversions and decline to elaborate on the arbitrator's damage award.
The lost hours are spread across all four of the port's ILA locals, Angelos said, though Local 333 is the only one fighting employers over a local contract. The other three locals have signed contracts but honored Local 333's picket lines during the strike.
Leaders of Baltimore's other ILA locals could not be reached for comment by phone or at their local offices, and many longshoremen have rebuffed interview requests through months of negotiations.
Nichols said many longshoremen remain quiet because they don't know what to make of the current negotiations.
"It's just a lot of bickering that's going on between management and the union officials, and also among the union officials. Nobody seems to agree on which direction to take," Nichols said. "It's tough to get an informative perspective on what's going on, because you hear one thing from one person and then another thing from someone else."
In another sign of the discord, McKenzie said a man who criticized the union in a January article in The Baltimore Sun is no longer in the union after being kicked out last year for assaulting another longshoreman during a fight on the docks.
Victor Able, a former vice president of the union, was found guilty in October of second-degree assault and use of a deadly weapon, according to court records about the incident. He received a suspended three-year prison sentence and three years of supervised probation.
In court filings, Able said he was fired and forced to take "early retirement." In an interview, Able said he continues to pay dues to Local 333 and retains his membership, a claim denied by McKenzie but confirmed by Daryl Wilburn, the union's secretary-treasurer.
Other longshoremen, speaking off the record, said they won't speak out about the contract dispute because they fear repercussions in the union's dispatching center, where jobs are assigned.
While the port administration reports monthly cargo tonnage, gauging whether increases or decreases are related to the labor situation is difficult, officials said, as tonnage fluctuates regularly.
For example, the port handled more than 90,000 tons of automobile cargo in October, November and December each, according to statistics, then handled just 62,000 tons in January. However, a similar drop occurred in January 2013, before the contract dispute.
White declined to explain how the diversions are effecting tonnage.
"I know that some automobile manufacturers have diverted automobiles to other ports," he said. "I'm not going to give up what those manufacturers are, because if the ILA found out, they wouldn't handle them in other ports."
Angelos said automobiles, paper products and other cargo covered under the local contract are being diverted to private terminals that don't use ILA labor, including some in Baltimore.
Even containers, which are covered under the separate master contract, are being diverted to other ports where ILA unions already signed local contracts, he said.
White said he's hopeful negotiations will be fruitful. Daggett "wouldn't be coming here unless he has some ideas about how to get this resolved," he said.