Members of a local longshoremen union that went on strike in October, crippling the port of Baltimore for three days, will meet Monday to discuss a new contract offer from the port's employers.
The deadline for a new deal between the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 and the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents the employers, is Jan. 17.
That's when a "cooling-off" period ordered by an arbitrator to stop the October strike and restart port operations comes to an end.
The outcome of the Local 333 meeting, where a vote on the proposed contract could take place, will have huge implications for the port — which has worked to protect its reputation as a dependable cargo handler after the last work stoppage angered customers.
Another strike would further sour relations, said Jim White, director of the Maryland Port Administration.
"If we keep having disruptions, management-labor disruptions, in this port, we'll have issues with our customers, regardless of how good the port's relationships are with the customers," White said.
A few of the automakers that made Baltimore the nation's No. 1 port for vehicle imports said they were exploring alternatives even during the short October strike.
Conversations with customers during that strike were "not pleasant," White said. The port hasn't lost any business because of it, he said, but it remains fresh in people's minds.
"That situation did plant some seeds with them, you can't disregard that," White said. "They lived through that, they didn't like it, they told us they didn't like it. We were told to fix it and we're doing our best."
The current negotiations cover a local contract for automobile and other break bulk cargo, but not containers, which are covered under a master contract for the entire East Coast.
The October strike, however, affected the entire port, including master contract cargo — a fact that led an arbitrator to invalidate the strike. The master contract has a no-strike clause.
This month, the Steamship Trade Association offered a "best and final" contract to Local 333, which included increased wages for longshoremen working vehicle shipments, cruise ships and forest products — three major sources of business at the port.
For example, longshoremen with six or more years of experience working automobiles would see an increase of $2 per hour by 2017, to $32 an hour. Longshoremen with less experience also would see raises, though not as large.
The proposed contract included raises for working cruises and forest products. It also offered new safety and manpower-per-job considerations.
Riker McKenzie, president of Local 333, said Thursday that at Monday's meeting union leaders will update the membership on what has been proposed under the latest negotiations.
"We're going to have discussions, we're going to review their proposal, and it's our expressed and hopeful intent that we can negotiate to get a fair and equitable contract for our members," he said.
McKenzie said he won't know whether the Local 333 membership will accept the terms of the proposed contract until after the meeting Monday.
Jim McNamara, a spokesman for the International Longshoremen Association, declined to comment beyond McKenzie's comments.
Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said the contract includes "unprecedented wage increases," and said the association is hopeful a second strike will be averted.
Helen Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman and an adviser to the port administration, called the situation in the port "very serious."
She cited fliers circulating on Local 333 letterhead announcing there would be a "strike vote" at Monday's meeting.
"You can have 10 50-foot channels and you can have everything else, but if you don't have labor stability you have nothing," Bentley said.
A website that appears to be associated with Local 333 also had a scrolling red marque announcing a "strike vote" and urging members to attend the meeting.
McKenzie denied any personal knowledge of the fliers or the website message.
Richard Scher, a MPA spokesman, said he was not aware of any scheduled "strike vote," and remained hopeful the port "won't have any work stoppage or significant issue that impacts normal operations."