Port of Baltimore officials say they "are preparing for the worst," in the event of a longshoremen's strike at one minute past midnight Dec. 30.
But that would be nothing, they say, compared with a management decision to lock out workers at the deadline — a move that would bring work on cargo ships and cruise ships to a halt.
As the deadline approaches, Baltimore officials are preparing a strike plan that incorporates an accelerated work schedule next week to move as much cargo as possible, and security measures with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, the Coast Guard and Baltimore city and county police.
Talks on a master contract broke off Tuesday between the International Longshoremen's Association representing 14,500 workers from Maine to Texas — including 1,400 in Baltimore — and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents 43 shipping companies and port operators. There has been no indication that a return to the bargaining table is imminent.
The alliance is expected to meet Thursday to discuss options, including the possibility of a lockout, which would bar workers from the docks. Ports America, which operates the Seagirt Marine Terminal, and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which negotiates a local agreement, are among the members.
"Labor is very sincere about walking out, and I think management is contemplating this lockout. I don't think I ever remember things being this sensitive, to the point where management was threatening a lockout," said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, who remembers the last coastwide strike in 1977. "We are preparing for the worst."
The maritime alliance did not respond to requests for comment. A Ports America spokesman said officials would not comment about the labor talks.
While a strike has been authorized, union spokesman James McNamara said, no action will be taken before the deadline.
"We're here and we're ready to talk any time, but we haven't heard from USMX [the U.S. Maritime Alliance] or the federal mediator," McNamara said. "Monday and Tuesday are holidays, but we would be willing to meet. Anything can be done if you keep negotiating."
In a strike memo, union president Harold Daggett said dockworkers would not handle containers but promised to continue loading and unloading passenger cruise ships, perishable commodities and noncontainer cargo such as cars, wood products and bulk materials.
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.
Containers make up 66 percent of the general cargo tonnage at Baltimore's public terminals.
"We have diversity. We'll be working everything but containers," White said. But with a lockout in place, "nothing moves."
The port has been in contact with two cruise lines that have ships coming in next weekend. Enchantment of the Seas should be able to discharge and take on passengers Saturday, Dec. 29, before the deadline. But Carnival Pride, due in Sunday, Dec. 30, could do neither in the event of a lockout, and Enchantment of the Seas would have no return port in a prolonged lockout.
Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, owner of Enchantment, said the company has not altered any cruises.
"We will continue to closely monitor the situation and will contact guests or their travel agents should it be necessary to make any modifications to upcoming itineraries," she said.
The potential of a strike is making businesses uneasy.
Nick Patronik, owner of Patron Services Inc., a small freight forwarding company on Light Street, said a strike coming as the economy is trying to recover would be a "calamity."
"We lost three customers who were forced to close their operations due to economic factors beyond their control. The rest of our current clients are shipping at levels that represent 20 to 50 percent less than their historical averages for exports," he said. "We are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that a last-minute accord will be reached."
CSX Corp., which does not employ longshoremen in moving containers that come into the port, said it is monitoring the situation and doing what it can to ensure customers' product flow.
On Thursday, 100 business organizations wrote to President Barack Obama, urging him to "use all the options available to you" to avert a strike, including getting a court order to force labor back to work during an 80-day cooling-off period. President George W. Bush used a court order to end a West Coast dock strike in 2002.
The two sides began talks in March on a six-year contract to replace one that was to expire Sept. 30. But negotiations ended abruptly in late August. A federal mediator brokered a three-month extension to take talks beyond the holidays and elections.
At issue are the container royalty payments instituted more than a half-century ago to help dockworkers make the transition from bulk cargo to containers. Management wants to cap the royalties at 2011 levels — about $15,000 for each employee — and restrict who is eligible. The union has said the issue is not negotiable.
White said the port has enjoyed a strong relationship with the local union.
"The really sad thing about this is, if you walk out on our docks and ask our guys if they want to strike, they don't want to strike," the executive director of the Maryland Port Administration said. "They're working as many hours as they want to. They're making money. Production is up at all of our terminals. Last year we led the nation. Management locally doesn't want this to happen. But here we are."