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News Opinion Editorial

Infighting at the port [Editorial]

Now should be the time for the Port of Baltimore to show the world that it's open for business. Work resumed in February on the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is now expected to be completed in 2015. When that happens, super-sized cargo ships will be able to traverse that century-old connection between the Atlantic and Pacific, and as it stands, only two East Coast ports will be able to handle them: Norfolk and Baltimore.

But a lingering labor dispute between the steamship lines and one of the port's unions that led to a three-day strike last fall is giving the Port of Baltimore a black eye at precisely the wrong time. A report by The Sun's Kevin Rector on Sunday showed that amid the legitimate issues that have made negotiations difficult is a significant degree of unrest within the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 itself. We can't begin to adjudicate the conflicts among the local's leaders. But it is clear that whoever is at fault — and there appears to be plenty of blame to go around — petty disputes are threatening something much more crucial to the future not just of the union but to the economy of Baltimore as a whole.

Mr. Rector reported that the national longshoremen's union is considering taking control of the local after its investigation found questionable financial practices, missing money and other problems. The national union's arrival on the scene won't necessarily cause the dispute between the local and the steamship lines to evaporate — in fact, the intervention of the national in February may have helped prolong the unrest — but it does give some hope that at least some obstacles to a resolution may fall away.

The substantive issues at the center of the labor dispute deal with rules about how work is assigned at the port and how disciplinary cases are handled, among other things. In October, ILA Local 333 conducted a three-day strike, which was honored by the three other ILA locals at the port — all of which have signed contracts — shutting down operations there. That affected not only the "break bulk" cargo — cars, paper and the like — that is in dispute but also container cargo, which is subject to "no strike" clause through a master agreement that covers all East Coast ports.

Given the intricacies of international shipping, even a three-day work stoppage here had global effects. A cargo ship from South America had to turn around because it could not be unloaded. Another ship that was already in Baltimore was delayed and had to skip other ports of call, leading to ripple effects as containers that were supposed to be delivered to the Bahamas instead wound up in the Dominican Republic. Another ship had to use more than 260 extra tons of fuel while waiting here and then speeding up to make it to its next stop.

Because of the no-strike clause, an arbitrator awarded nearly $4 million in damages to Ports America Chesapeake (which runs Seagirt Marine Terminal) and six carriers. In February, at the urging of a national union official, Local 333 rejected what the Steamship Trade Association called its best and final offer — including the promise of substantial pay raises — in hopes that continued labor unrest could give it room to negotiate down that award.

The members of Local 333 are, no doubt, in a difficult position. They're being asked to choose between concerns about employment conditions, pay raises and the prospect of footing the bill through their dues for a multi-million-dollar judgment. But their ability to work through those tricky issues is not helped by feuding and factionalism among the local's leaders, which culminated in a physical altercation between secretary-treasurer Daryl Wilburn and president Riker "Rocky" McKenzie. Both are expected in court Tuesday after filing complaints against each other stemming from a fight at the union hall shortly after the strike in November.

What's needed is not infighting but a clear view of the big picture. The union and its members have a strong interest in coming to a settlement with the shipping lines as soon as possible because they, ultimately, have the most at stake in making sure Baltimore doesn't develop a reputation for unreliability that erases some of the advantages it's about to get from its superior facilities. The issue is of broader importance to the local economy; the port is one of the 10 biggest employment centers in the state and is responsible for thousands of direct and indirect jobs and billions in wages. Moreover, it has the potential with the canal expansion to be one of the great growth sectors in Maryland's economy for years to come. There's at least anecdotal evidence that some cargo is already being diverted to other ports, and the longshoremen need to come to a settlement before that trend gets worse, for their sake and for the sake of the entire state.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated Ports America Chesapeake's role at the Port of Baltimore. The Sun regrets the error.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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