Unionized longshoremen who work the docks at the port of Baltimore voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to reject a contract proposal from their employers, once again extending a labor standoff that has destabilized the state's primary trade hub for months.
They did so with the backing of national labor officials, who warned that approval of the contract would mean millions of dollars pulled from the union's — and local longshoremen's — pockets.
Others fear that continuing to work without a contract could have a more dire effect: ratcheting up concerns of labor instability among port customers and causing cargo to be diverted. Such a diversion could have widespread economic impacts, rippling out to trucking, processing and rail providers.
Members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 voted 416 to 140 to reject the local contract. The Steamship Trade Association, which represents employers at the port of Baltimore, had repeatedly called the contract its "best and final" offer.
The two parties now remain in the limbo that has defined their relationship for weeks: there's no labor agreement in place, but no threats of a strike or lockout.
"We're going to continue to work," said Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, Local 333 president, after the votes were counted. "We're going to continue to negotiate."
Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said employers expected the port to continue operating.
"We're going to have to regroup," he said.
Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, declined to comment.
The local contract covers automobiles, paper and other so-called break bulk cargo. The union has already agreed to a separate master contract for container cargo that covers operations up and down the East Coast.
The local contract standoff heated up in October, when members of Local 333 staged a three-day strike that paralyzed the port's public terminals. Baltimore's three other ILA locals, which had already signed local contracts, honored the picket lines.
Angelos said he had expected union members to approve the new contract, which he said is fair and would raise wages dramatically. But things took a turn Monday, he said, when Local 333 received powerful support from national ILA officials — rare in a local contract vote.
McKenzie said the contract addresses none of the union's concerns about how jobs are filled, how discipline is meted out and how safety is ensured. Until this week, national ILA officials had remained silent on the proposal, deferring to McKenzie.
But on Monday, a message directly from Dennis Daggett, president of the ILA's Atlantic Coast District, began circulating in Baltimore.
Daggett said rejecting the contract would put the local union in a "better position" to negotiate down the $3.8 million debt it owes to port employers — damages a federal arbitrator ordered the union to pay after the October strike.
"I believe that if the final offer is accepted by the Local 333 membership, STA and its member companies will proceed with enforcing the award against Local 333's treasury and your future dues money, which obviously will be financially devastating to Local 333," Daggett wrote. "On the other hand, if you reject the offer, Local 333 will likely be in a better position to deal with the arbitrator's award."
The arbitrator ruled that the strike was invalid because it stopped work not just on local cargo, but also on master contract containers, which are protected under a "no-strike" provision.
The union's vote Tuesday took place over a 12-hour period, as Local 333 members trickled into their Locust Point union hall from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to cast secret ballots.
Just before entering the hall, some stopped to read Daggett's letter, which had been posted to the hall's brick facade above a "VOTE NO" sign.
Daggett stressed the need to protect leverage in settlement discussions while dismissing the "concern" among some longshoremen that a down vote would mean another strike.
"The bargaining parties are still able to go back to the bargaining table and continue negotiating," he wrote.
He also pledged to "come to Baltimore and involve myself personally in your local negotiations until we can hopefully reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both sides."
Jim McNamara, an ILA spokesman, said national union officials would not comment on the Baltimore vote beyond Daggett's letter.
McKenzie said Daggett's message to Local 333 members "meant a lot."
Angelos, of the STA, said it was "obviously one of the driving reasons" behind the rejection.
"Before that happened, I thought that the majority of the people were in favor of the agreement," he said.
Both parties are to meet to discuss the arbitrator's award of damages, but a timetable has not been set.