When a three-day strike by local longshoremen forced the 718-foot CCNI Antofagasta to sail out of the port of Baltimore without unloading its container cargo, the effects rippled across the country and overseas.
Several shipping lines scrambled to reroute dozens of Baltimore-bound containers north again after the ship brought them back to Cartagena, Colombia, according to documents obtained from the Maryland Port Administration through a Maryland Public Information Act request. Chicago customers expecting to reuse Antofagasta containers emptied in Baltimore instead had to order them by rail from Savannah, Ga. The Antofagasta burned nearly 40 tons of additional fuel to make up for lost time and arrive on schedule at the Panama Canal.
In the six months since, the cost of those global disruptions and others caused by the strike has become a central issue in the labor negotiations at the port of Baltimore. The International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore remain stuck in the same local contract dispute that sparked the October strike.
Federal arbitrator M. David Vaughn ruled in January that Local 333 violated a "no-strike" provision in a master contract governing container cargo at ports from Maine to Texas. As a result, he ordered the local to pay shipping lines and port operators nearly $3.9 million in damages for unexpected costs and lost revenues during the strike, but left the door open for some other resolution.
Local 333 called the strike because of a dispute over a proposed local contract that covers automobiles and other break-bulk cargo, as well as work rules. Baltimore's three other ILA locals honored the picket lines, paralyzing the port's public terminals.
"It's really uncharted water for most of us. We simply haven't had this kind of circumstance in the past," said David Adam, chairman and CEO of the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX), which represents the lines awarded damages.
After the arbitration award, ILA Atlantic Coast District President Dennis Daggett urged Local 333 members to again reject the "best and final" local contract offered by the STA in a vote Feb. 10, arguing that union leaders could use the unsettled contract as leverage to reduce the damages.
Daggett said the award would be "financially devastating" to the local union and its 1,200 members if allowed to stand. The membership listened and rejected the contract, even as some port customers were diverting cargo for fear of another strike.
Whether ILA officials will be able to negotiate down the damages, and how the damages will be paid if they can't, remains unclear.
On Wednesday, Daggett held a meeting with hundreds of Local 333 members to discuss where he and other union negotiators stand with the damages. Several longshoremen outside the meeting declined to comment on what he said.
Jim McNamara, the national ILA spokesman, said Daggett and other officials could not comment on pending negotiations.
"They are still involved in trying to help Local 333 and help Baltimore with the whole negotiating issue, and of course the issue of the award," McNamara said. "It's still hot and it's still ongoing."
Daggett thanked Local 333 members in a letter dated Friday for their "huge turnout" at the Wednesday meeting and told them they are "not alone" in facing the steep damages award.
"We are committed to assist you to achieve a fair and equitable local contract and to remove any financial burdens or obstacles that are an attempt by employers and a misguided arbitrator to weaken your efforts for union representation," Daggett wrote.
Michael Angelos, president of the STA, said in an email that the STA "is confident that we will be successful working along with USMX to settle the arbitrator's damage award."
Angelos said he expects Local 333 members will sign the new local contract as well, but declined to discuss details of the negotiations because of their "sensitive nature."
Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, president of Local 333, declined to comment.
The local contract negotiations have "kind of stalled" over the question of payment on the damages, said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, a state agency that owns the port's public terminals. White questioned whether a resolution to the contract impasse would be enough incentive for master contract carriers to forgive the damages owed them.
"You have to ask yourself, 'Why would the master contract carriers … give up any of those funds?'" he said.
Adam said USMX has plenty of incentive to find a solution with Local 333 because it must continue working with the local union — Baltimore's largest — after the current six-year master contract expires.