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ILA says new labor contract sends message Baltimore port is 'open for business'

'Baltimore is open for business,' says longshore leader

Local dockworkers' approval of a long-disputed labor contract in Baltimore sends a message to shippers that the city's port is "open for business," according to a union official.

"Your voices have been heard," wrote Wilbert Rowell, the International Longshoremen's Association trustee in charge of the troubled Local 333 chapter, in a note to members about Wednesday's vote.

"With a majority of 'Yes' votes you have also provided a message to customers sending or receiving cargo through the Port of Baltimore," Rowell wrote in the note, which appeared on the local's website late Thursday. "Thank you for letting the democratic process speak for Local 333. Baltimore is open for business."

Rowell, who declined to comment Wednesday night on the vote, was named trustee of Local 333 in November amid the local contract talks, after allegations arose that the chapter's elected officials improperly stacked the union's rolls ahead of local elections.

Rowell purged the local's membership rolls after last month's rejection of a similar local contract, which covers automobiles and other non-containerized cargo as well as local hiring and benefits provisions for dockworkers. The people were removed after their memberships were described as not valid.

Two of the elected officials ousted under the trusteeship, meanwhile, have vowed to challenge the approved contract as part of an existing lawsuit that claims Rowell's trusteeship is illegal. The lawsuit claims as many as 500 people were removed from the union, 86 of whom are co-plaintiffs.

Members approved the contract by a narrow margin, though Rowell did not release the vote tally.

He called the contract approval "a positive step in the right direction," however, noting that it provides wage increases and prevents nonunion laborers from being hired by port employers for union jobs.

That last provision has been a priority of the union throughout its long standoff with port employers, which began in earnest when Local 333 went on strike for three days in October 2013, shutting down all operations at the port of Baltimore's public terminals.

It also was pointedly raised again in the final days of the negotiations after Local 333 filed a grievance over port shippers' hiring of two people referred by the nonprofit Maryland New Directions, which has been training Baltimore residents to enter the maritime field and obtain work at the port — supported in part by state grant funding.

In a letter posted to the Local 333 website before the vote, Michael Angelos, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore, which represents shippers, acknowledged the hires but said they would not be repeated.

Asked about the letter, New Directions Executive Director Grace Lee said the group is "flexible and prepared for changes," and that the letter did not represent "a significant setback to our efforts as we still have strong employer and community support and remain committed to our mission to prepare and provide skills to Baltimore City job seekers to help them become self-sustaining and contribute to the financial well-being of their families."

Since last year, the group's maritime training program has placed 19 of 25 trainees in jobs with an average hourly wage of $16.14, Lee said. More than two dozen additional job seekers completed their training Friday, she said.

Port officials said the new Local 333 contract will strengthen the port's position as a major employment center in the region, in part by reassuring shippers who had grown concerned about labor instability.

The local contract is valid through 2018, when a separate master contract for containerized cargo expires as well.

Officials representing both the ILA and port employers have said they are open to starting talks on a new master contract soon, in part to avoid another labor standoff like the one that recently caused widespread disruptions to cargo handling at ports along the West Coast.

krector@baltsun.com

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