Shippers already have begun diverting cargo from the port of Baltimore because of uncertainty about the ongoing labor contract standoff with the largest dockworkers union.
The port is losing shipments despite assurances from labor and management officials that there won't be another strike or a lockout when a 90-day cooling-off period expires Friday.
But there was no sign of a deal late Thursday, with labor representatives pushing for negotiations to continue and management saying their final offer is already on the table.
Members of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association met Thursday night to discuss the latest local contract proposed by the Steamship Trade Association, which represents port employers, but did not vote on the proposed contract, officials said.
At one point early in the night, their union hall was filled to capacity, with some members spilling out the doors and trying to peer through a wall of their fellow dockworkers' backs. Others milled outside.
Several declined to comment about the negotiations, which will determine their wages, benefits and other employment conditions for years to come.
The union went on strike in October, paralyzing port operations for three days, until a federal arbitrator ordered the cooling-off period.
Before the Thursday night meeting, Riker "Rocky" McKenzie, Local 333's president, said there would not be a strike.
"If anybody brings up strike talk, I'll make sure that that strike talk is put to rest immediately," he said.
After the meeting, he said members discussed continuing talks with management. "We're going to continue to work," he said.
Some shippers aren't waiting to find out how the standoff ends.
Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association, said "shippers, customers and steamship lines" are currently diverting cargo.
Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, said Thursday that at least one manufacturer has diverted cargo to another port, but declined to identify the manufacturer or the amount of cargo diverted.
"There are some sensitivities there," he said, including the fact that union labor also is used at the port where the cargo is now headed.
Scher said the MPA "continues to strongly encourage both sides to reach an agreement for the good of the port."
The local contract in question covers automobiles, cruise ships, forest products and other break bulk cargo. A master contract that applies to container handling at ports along the entire East Coast was signed last year.
Baltimore is the nation's No. 1 port for the shipment of vehicles, which makes the contract critically important.
It remained unclear Thursday how the two parties would reach a final agreement.
McKenzie said his members discussed changes made to the contract Wednesday by the Steamship Trade Association without the input of the union's leadership.
He said he recommended a 30-day extension to the cooling-off period at Thursday night's meeting so union negotiators can return to the bargaining table to discuss the changes.