With time running out before the contract expires, the union representing 14,500 longshoremen on the East and Gulf coasts and the port employers' organization will meet Wednesday morning with a federal mediator to try to avert the first strike in 35 years.
Talks on a master contract covering 14 ports, including Baltimore, broke off in late August with leaders of the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance accusing each other of bargaining in bad faith. The contract, which expires Sept. 30, covers nearly 1,200 longshoremen who work at the port of Baltimore.
Both sides agreed to a request from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to resume negotiations at a New Jersey hotel.
Even though the largest ILA local, which represents the port of New York and New Jersey, has authorized a strike, the heated rhetoric that followed the breakdown of talks has quieted.
"We're not saying anything one way or the other. We want to let the session take place and then see where we are," said ILA spokesman Jim McNamara.
The key issues are job security for workers displaced by automation, overtime rules and the royalty payments longshoremen receive based on container weight.
The maritime alliance says dockworkers are driving up shipping costs by taking advantage of liberal overtime rules. It says longshoreman are well compensated, making an average of $124,000 annually in wages and benefits, with management paying 97 percent of the cost of their health care plan.
The union says its members do dangerous work, often in adverse weather, and must be protected and retrained as the industry changes.
Retail and agricultural businesses that rely on the ports have stepped up their lobbying, imploring labor and management to quickly resolve their dispute; the National Retail Federation urged them to keep the ports open while talks continue.
Late last week, the Toy Industry Association, which accounts for 85 percent of the $21.9 billion market, expressed "deep concern" that a slowdown or strike would have grave consequences for its members.
"Any unexpected delays or disruptions in the supply chain can result in high costs for everyone involved," said Carter Keithly, the toy association president. "Expenses are magnified when delays occur during peak shipping seasons—like in October, when retailers are stocking up for the holiday shopping season."
With the threat of a walkout looming, six of the nation's leading maritime unions added pressure on management last week by forming the Maritime Labor Alliance and pledging to support each other to protect workers' rights. The group includes ILA's West Coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which would handle much of the cargo rerouted from striking ports.
No one would address what the alliance might do in the event of an East Coast strike. But James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said any West Coast job action would be short-lived.
"I don't see that working," he said. "That's a secondary boycott, and a judge would step in and put a stop to it within hours."
Several container lines, including Maersk Line, announced that in the event of a strike, they would add a congestion surcharge of between $800 to $1,200 per container on shipments to and from U.S. ports beginning Oct. 1.
Baltimore is ranked No. 1 among 360 U.S. ports for handling farm and construction machinery, autos, light trucks, imported forest products, imported sugar, imported iron ore and gypsum. It ranks second in the nation for exported coal, imported salt and imported aluminum.
Port officials believe that the diversity of Baltimore's imports and exports will allow it to weather some of the labor storm.
"Our hope is that nothing will happen," said Ted Venetoulis, a port commissioner. "But I'm confident we will be ready. We're not going to be caught unprepared."