Members of the largest dockworkers union in Baltimore turned down a proposed local labor contract that had been tentatively agreed to by national union officials and representatives of Baltimore's port employers.
This was not the first time members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 have turned down a labor proposal from their employers, who are being represented by the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore. But it was the first time during the current labor dispute — heated since Local 333 went on strike for three days in October 2013 — that the local membership rebuffed a contract agreed to by their union's national executives, who have been negotiating on their behalf for months.
The labor standoff is important to Baltimore and the state, because the port is a major economic engine and the lack of a local labor contract has worried shippers and even caused diversions of cargo to other ports.
"There is some apprehension on behalf of the manufacturers and shippers and consignees that use our port," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "There's plenty of opportunity here, and we just need to get this one local contract concluded."
White said the local's members voted late last week about 400 against to 170 in favor, meaning only about half of its 1,200 or so members voted.
What influenced the vote is unclear, he said. The MPA is not party to contract negotiations, and White said he didn't know if the proposed contract varied from one the STA called its "best and final offer" last year — which Local 333 members also rejected.
White said it appeared that "different versions of the agreement" circulated on Baltimore's piers last week, causing confusion among Local 333's ranks prior to the vote.
Local 333 was placed under trusteeship in late November amid infighting and accusations of mismanagement by its local leaders, and has been represented by national ILA officials at the negotiating table for months.
Jim McNamara, an ILA spokesman, declined to comment and said the trustee in charge, Wilbert Rowell, would not comment on the most recent vote or the status of the negotiations.
Michael Angelos, president of the STA, said he is "sure the issue will be resolved," but declined to comment on the vote.
In the past, Local 333 leaders have said several outstanding issues complicated the contract negotiations, including an outstanding damages award of nearly $4 million that a federal arbitrator ordered the local to pay port shippers for cargo disruptions during the strike.
Those disruptions interfered with container cargo covered under a separate, master contract protected by a "no-strike" provision, which the arbitrator found Local 333 had violated. The award is the subject of ongoing litigation.
White said he did not know if the contract voted down last week offered any concessions in relation to the arbitrator's award, which the union could require its members to pay out of pocket.
"I thought we were in a real solid position with the rank and file wanting this thing behind them and management wanting to move on," said White, who was surprised by the vote.
Dennis Daggett, a top Mid-Atlantic ILA official who has participated in the Baltimore negotiations, advised Local 333 members last year to turn down a previous contract proposal from the STA on the grounds that he could use the lack of a contract to negotiate away the arbitrator's award. McNamara, the ILA spokesman, said Daggett would not comment either.
White said last week's vote against a local contract doesn't help to alleviate the lingering concern about labor instability in Baltimore that has caused shippers to divert cargo in past months.
Helen Bentley, a former congresswoman and current adviser to the port administration, said it is "urgent for the future of the port of Baltimore" that the labor standoff is resolved quickly.
Bentley referred to the current labor strife between longshoremen and shippers on the West Coast, which is causing major cargo problems there.
"We don't need Baltimore to have the reputation that the West Coast has right now," she said, "and we don't need to lose any more business here."