Members of Baltimore's largest dockworkers union agreed Wednesday to a new local labor contract, ending a nearly 18-month standoff that both sides said threatened the long-term viability of the port.
Members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 voted by a thin margin to approve the contract negotiated by national ILA officials and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents shippers.
The vote was met with relief by shipping representatives and port officials, who have worked to allay shippers' concerns about labor stability throughout the long negotiations.
Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said the "contract ratification provides security for the membership and to port of Baltimore customers."
Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and current adviser to the Maryland Port Administration, said the "18 months of uncertainty have not helped the port's image." She said she was glad Local 333 members voted to put the dispute behind them.
"The passage of the contract tonight should provide the solid foundation that we need for the port of Baltimore to move ahead," Bentley said.
A vote tally was not released, but Bentley said the contract passed by just a few votes.
Wilbert Rowell, the ILA trustee put in charge of Local 333 in November amid allegations of improprieties by the chapter's elected local officials, said "no comment" when reached by phone late Wednesday. Before the vote, he had praised the proposed contract as a "positive step in the right direction" that included several "significant gains" for Local 333.
Jim McNamara, a national spokesman for the ILA, did not respond to requests for comment.
The agreement, which covers the handling of automobiles and other noncontainer cargo, complements a broader master contract that governs container cargo handled by ILA labor at ports from Maine to Texas.
The local contract is valid through Sept. 30, 2018, when the master contract also expires, and includes guaranteed wage increases, ensures that all jobs will be filled with ILA labor and ends the hiring of nonunion workers off the pier.
It also forgives a $3.8 million damages award assessed against Local 333 by a federal arbitrator last year after the local's members went on strike for three days in October 2013, shutting down operations at Baltimore's public terminals and spurring fears of labor instability.
The arbitrator ruled that the work stoppage violated a no-strike provision in the master contract and ordered Local 333 to pay damages to shippers. The ruling prompted litigation — which will now be jointly dismissed under the new contract's terms — and complicated the contract negotiations.
Rowell was put in charge of Local 333 in November after accusations that the chapter's elected leaders had been stacking union rolls improperly ahead of a local election. Rowell purged the rolls of about 500 recently admitted members.
Last week, the former president of Local 333, Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, former recording secretary Ezekiel Givens and 86 purged members filed a lawsuit against both the national ILA and the STA, alleging that they had been removed from leadership and membership positions in the union as part of an effort by the national ILA and the Steamship Trade Association to gain a local contract to their liking.
An attorney for McKenzie and the other plaintiffs said this week that they would challenge any vote taken by the Local 333 membership Wednesday because the contract terms should be negotiated by the chapter's locally elected leaders and not by Rowell and other outside ILA officials.
However, an emergency motion filed by the attorney Tuesday seeking a temporary injunction to prevent Wednesday's vote pending an outcome in the case was denied.