A strike by hundreds of longshoremen who work the port of Baltimore's docks idled one of the region's big economic engines.
Launched early Wednesday morning, the strike shut down all of the port's public marine terminals, and its effects rippled out from the docks where ship crews waited for their vessels to be unloaded, to the truckers who haul cargo and cars from the port, to the warehouses that unload consumer goods.
It started after members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 voted Tuesday night to reject a local contract with the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represent the port's employers of longshoremen.
A prolonged impasse could prompt shipping lines to divert cargo to nearby ports such as Norfolk, Va., and, port officials and others worried, diminish the industry's confidence in the port of Baltimore and its workforce, undercutting years of progress.
"Obviously it's not a good situation for the port, it's not a good situation for our port customers and it's obviously not a good situation for the men and women who work here," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.
"It's my hope that the port returns to full operations as soon as possible," said Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Port-related businesses directly employ 15,000 Marylanders and the jobs of tens of thousands more are supported by the port, according to the Maryland Port Administration. The port is responsible for $3 billion a year in personal wages and salaries and more than $300 million a year in state and local taxes.
Crowds of union members stood outside entrances to Dundalk Marine Terminal on Wednesday morning holding signs reading, "No contract, no work," and "ILA Port of Baltimore on STRIKE!"
The port's 400-foot container cranes towered motionless in the distance at Seagirt Marine Terminal, where strikers also gathered. Only a few trucks passed through the normally busy gates.
John Furman, 28, of Essex, who grew up in South Baltimore and followed his father and grandfather as a longshoreman, said he would prefer to be working, but was striking to ensure he could provide for his family in coming years.
"It's a job," he said of his career for the past 11 years. "You don't want to see work leaving, you want to see work coming in. Then again you want something to work against. You want a good contract."
Members of Local 333, the port's largest ILA local, voted 517 to 25 Tuesday against the proposed local contract, said Riker McKenzie, president of Local 333. Following the vote, national ILA officials ordered the strike, he said.
Harold Daggett, the ILA's national president, declined on Wednesday to comment.
McKenzie declined to discuss specifics of the contract dispute, other than to say Steamship Trade officials "have been just flat-out refusing to engage" with union negotiators on a number of "housekeeping issues."
The port's three other ILA locals are honoring the picket lines even though they have agreed to local contracts.
The local contract covers workplace issues specific to Baltimore. The ILA agreed to a broader master agreement covering compensation and rules for container and vehicular shipments at all East Coast ports earlier this year. ILA locals in several cities still are negotiating local agreements, but Baltimore is the only port facing a strike.
O'Malley said port administrator Jim White is "on top of this," and that he understands that the two sides have asked a mediator to step in.
"We had been negotiating for quite some time and I think we have to get back to the table," said Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association. "There's no reason not to continue that under good-faith bargaining efforts."
He declined to comment further on the impasse, except to say Local 333 is violating a "no-strike provision" in the master agreement governing port operations.
Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman and an adviser to the port administration, said it is "most unfortunate" the local union broke that provision — a move she said may have long-term consequences for Baltimore.
"Labor stability is extremely important if a port wants to hold business and grow business," Bentley said. "A deep channel and fancy cranes will not hold the cargo if we do not have labor stability."
Local economist Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group agreed.
More than the economic impact of a few days of idled cranes, "what should concern people is what this means for the reputation of the port," Basu said.
"The port's human capital is among the most talented in America, and that's one of the reasons why many auto companies choose to send their precious cargo through the port of Baltimore. Nobody handles cars like Baltimore," he said.
If that workforce suddenly seems unreliable, shipping companies might consider other ports for their cargo, which would be a major hit for the region, Basu said.
"In a world of sequestration and federal government shutdowns, this region needs nonfederal drivers of economic growth," Basu said. "This region needs the port to be a big deal."
The strike's impact will depend largely on how long it lasts, Scher said.
"Ships will come in at the port, they'll dock at the port, and we don't believe they'll be redirected if this situation lasts for only a day or two," Scher said.
None of those involved would speculate on how long they expect the strike to last.
The strike immediately impacted shipping lines, stevedoring companies, terminal operators and other service providers in the port, Angelos said.
"A strike always has a very strong effect on the economy, and certainly it's going to anger people," Angelos said. "And don't forget the trucking community is effected greatly, because they depend a lot on the port."
Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, which represents the state's commercial truckers, said the strike "is pretty far reaching in its impact" on the regional transport of goods.
Every day the port is closed, local truckers lose money, especially those who work as independent contractors and are under lease to a carrier that works exclusively with the port, he said.
"Those guys are trying to make ends meet too, and when something like this occurs, those guys don't have work," he said.
The strike comes as the port expands operations to handle an expected increase in cargo after larger ships begin traversing a widened Panama Canal in 2015.
While the port administration has no seat at the negotiation table and doesn't hire ILA labor, Scher said, it is monitoring the situation.
"We obviously keep in close contact with both sides and we obviously strongly encourage them to negotiate, but we don't have a seat at that negotiating table," he said. "It's regrettable that the port of Baltimore is the only port from Maine to Texas that is not working today."
Omahie Mitchell, 33, a longshoreman for the past 10 years, said strikers want port operators to update the existing contract, which previously has been extended for about two years.
But port operators want "to have their set of rules, their language, that's it," Mitchell said.
Management, he said, "shorts our labor, cuts corners, cuts out costs," which raises safety and manpower concerns.
Eric Basso, 39, of Catonsville, who has been a longshoreman for the past two years, said he was out on Broening Highway striking "to stand behind my brothers and sisters."
"What's going on here is going on all over the country with corporations just trying to take, take, take," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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