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Port strike averted as union, management resolve sticking point

A weekend strike by dockworkers from Maine to Texas was averted Friday after union and management negotiators settled a major sticking point and extended the contract deadline until Feb. 6 to hammer out the rest of a long-term deal.

The announcement came from federal mediator George Cohen, who entered talks between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance in the fall.

"While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved," he said.

The port of Baltimore, which has about 1,200 longshoremen, had been preparing for a strike with extended hours at its marine terminals to move cargo.

"This will ensure that normal cargo operations at the port of Baltimore will proceed business as usual during that time period," said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "We hope that both sides use this extended time wisely and continue to talk in order to make progress toward a new agreement. It is within everyone's best interests to do so."

A strike would have disrupted 40 percent of the nation's container traffic, including activity at Baltimore's Seagirt and Dundalk marine terminals. Bulk cargo, such as coal, salt and paper products, and automobiles would not have been affected.

Baltimore's public marine terminals are on their way to a banner year. Container traffic through October was up 6 percent over the same period in 2011.

The ILA, which represents 14,500 dockworkers, and the maritime alliance, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators at 14 ports, said they would not comment on negotiations. But a longshoreman who answered the phone at the office of ILA 333, the Baltimore local, expressed relief.

"Everybody's always worried about not working. Nobody wants to strike. This deal sounds good to me," said the worker, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the local.

As the clock ticked toward the possibility of a Sunday coastwide strike — the first in 35 years — the union and management agreed to terms on the biggest hurdle: a container royalty payment system that has been in existence since the early 1960s. The payment was established to help workers make the transition to handling cargo in containers, which required less manpower.

Management wanted to cap payments at 2011 levels, an average of $15,000 annually for each worker. It also wanted to eliminate payments for new hires. The union said the issue was not negotiable.

Cohen said resolving the royalty issue was "a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement."

The terms of the royalty agreement will not be released until the talks conclude, he said. The date of the extension was initially set at Jan. 28 but was changed later Friday to give the parties a full 30 days to continue negotiating.

Still on the bargaining table are wage increases, health care benefits, work schedules and staffing levels, and updating the drug and alcohol testing policy.

The announcement was greeted with relief by the business community and civic leaders.

"This looks promising," said Nick Patronik, owner of Patron Service Inc., a freight forwarding business on Light Street. "Everybody I know is feeling much better. This is a great way to start the new year."

Gov. Martin O'Malley expressed his gratitude to the mediators and labor and management negotiators for their efforts to avoid a work stoppage.

"The Port of Baltimore continues to be a major part of our state's economic strength, generating and supporting thousands of jobs," O'Malley said in a statement. "During this extended period, we hope that a long-term resolution can be reached for the well-being of Maryland's hardworking families who depend on jobs and commerce linked to the Port of Baltimore."

The port is directly responsible for about 14,630 jobs and supports 108,000 related jobs. It generates $3 billion in wages and salary and more than $300 million in state and local taxes, according to the most recent figures.

National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement that while an extension does not generate the kind of certainty that a completed contract would, "it is a much better result than an East and Gulf Coast port strike."

He added, "This extension is a welcomed sign to the entire supply chain community — from manufacturers to retailers — that the two sides understand the risks of a shutdown and are listening to the concerns of the shipping community."


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