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Baltimore longshoremen deny strike liability, say master contract not in effect

Longshoremen who went on strike last year at the port of Baltimore claim they are not liable for related losses sustained by their employers, in part because a coastwide labor contract banning such strikes does not apply to them.

The claim was made in a federal court filing by Jennifer Stair, an attorney for the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333. The dockworkers union was sued last month by port employers for $3.86 million in damages — the amount arbitrator M. David Vaughn determined the employers lost during the union's three-day strike in October.

Longshoremen walked off the docks after failing to come to terms on a local labor contract covering automobiles, paper and other breakbulk cargo with the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents local employers.

Vaughn's award, however, was based on his finding that the strike violated a no-strike provision under the separate coastwide or "master" contract covering container cargo with the United States Maritime Alliance, or USMX, which represents employers in container shipping.

National officials at the ILA and USMX agreed to the master contract in the spring of 2013, and Local 333 members have been working since then under the contract's conditions.

However, Stair argued in Monday's filing that the terms of the master contract submitted to Local 333 membership included a provision that it "would not go into effect" until local agreements were reached — and that no such agreement has been reached.

Stair also argued that the lawsuit has no merit because it was filed before the expiration of Vaughn's 180-day jurisdiction in the case.

"The Award left open the issues of when and how any payments would be made, including potential modification of the amount" of the award, Stair wrote. By seeking a court order of payment, Stair argued, USMX and the STA are inappropriately asking the court to modify Vaughn's award by "imposing implementation terms that were not dictated."

Stair did not respond to a request for comment, nor did USMX President David Adam, STA President Michael Angelos, attorneys for either employer group or an attorney for national ILA officials.

Jim McNamara, a spokesman for national ILA officials who have stepped into Baltimore contract negotiations on behalf of Local 333, declined to comment. So did Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.

The strike, which was honored by Baltimore's other ILA locals, shut down port operations on local contract cargo, including automobiles and paper, as well as master contract containers.

Dockworkers from Maine to Texas work under the master contract, which stabilizes shipping along the East and Gulf coasts by helping prevent isolated local labor disruptions.

Following the strike, port administration officials said cargo shippers were diverting cargo from Baltimore to other East Coast ports because of fears of future labor instability without a local contract. It was unclear Tuesday whether those fears would be stoked by Local 333's claim that the master contract isn't in effect in Baltimore either.

In response to the union's filing, U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander recommended a Sept. 15 conference call to discuss a schedule for the case.

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