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Longshoremen reject proposed contract as deadline looms

Members of a local longshoremen union "resoundingly rejected" what has been described as a "best and final" contract offer from employers at the port of Baltimore on Monday night, according to the union president.

The International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 members did not vote to strike, however, and union leaders will continue to negotiate with the Steamship Trade Association, which represents the port's employers, ahead of a Friday contract deadline.

"We have to continue to work, which we're going to do productively, safely, efficiently and with quality service to our customers," said Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, the union's president. "We want management to sit at the table with us and bargain with us."

McKenzie said the union's Locust Point hall reached capacity during the meeting, which follows months of contentious negotiations after a three-day strike in October paralyzed the port and many of the businesses that rely on it.

The contract at issue covers automobiles, forest products and other break bulk cargo, as well as work on cruise ships. It does not cover containers, which are included in a master contract for the entire East Coast that was agreed to last year.

Local 333, the port of Baltimore's largest ILA local, ignored a no-strike provision in the master contract when its members stopped work on all cargo at the port's public terminals. Members of the port's three other ILA locals honored the picket lines during the strike, though they already had agreed to local contracts.

The strike ended when a federal arbitrator invalidated it, citing the master contract's no-strike provision, and instituted a 90-day "cooling off" period during which negotiations continued. That cooling-off period ends Friday.

The outcome of the negotiations will have broad implications.

Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said he is shocked that the terms of the latest offer weren't accepted after they were proposed on Dec. 31.

"We've offered an extremely attractive proposal. They've got the best health care, benefits, severance and annuity that I'm aware of, in addition to additional wages," he said.

On average, longshoremen covered under the contract would see a 45 percent increase in wages over the course of the six-year contract, Angelos said.

The lowest hourly rate for a longshoremen working automobiles and cruise ships would increase from $16 to $20, and a sliding scale that pays more to longshoremen with more experience would be introduced, mirroring a similar new scale in the latest master contract.

Over six years, a rookie longshoremen working automobiles could see his pay double, from $16 an hour to $32 an hour. Currently, longshoremen working automobiles in Philadelphia make $24 an hour, while those in Norfolk make $17, Angelos said.

Wages paid for work on forest products also would rise under the new contract.

McKenzie declined to comment on the proposed contract, but said his intent is to secure an equitable and fair contract for Local 333 members.

Union leaders will meet with management again on Tuesday, he said, and will hold another membership meeting at the hall Thursday — the night before the cooling-off period ends.

Angelos said the Steamship Trade Association previously asked to extend the cooling-off period to provide more time for negotiations, but McKenzie rejected that request.

The port of Baltimore is responsible for $3 billion a year in personal wages and salaries and more than $300 million a year in state and local taxes. Tens of thousands of jobs are supported by the port, and port-related businesses directly employ 15,000 people, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

Local contracts covering wages and benefits are based on complex considerations about what employers can afford while remaining competitive with other regional and East Coast ports.

"It's hard to increase costs when you are competing with people who are already [paying] less than you," Angelos said.

Port officials and employers work hard to retain business, but they aren't always successful.

In a recent example, Brazil-based forest products company Fibria is in the process of moving its operations out of the port of Baltimore to Philadelphia, citing a cheaper cost of operating there.



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