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 discussions 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.
"If that means we have to keep talking two, three times a week, two, three hours per session, then that's what we're going to do," he said. He also said ILA President Harold Daggett may come to Baltimore to participate.
Jim McNamara, an ILA spokesman, said he wasn't aware of any direct involvement by Daggett or other national ILA officials in the negotiation process, though they are "watching it closely and keeping up to date."
Angelos said the revised contract offered Wednesday, which he described as an "enhanced best and final offer" from employers, grants two additional concessions requested by the longshoremen.
One covers how employers can replace workers if they leave a job uncompleted, while the other changes a wage scale and how it relates to employees' tenure.
Angelos said the association asked that the new proposal be taken immediately to a full membership vote. There "is nothing left to negotiate," he said.
While he said the STA will not agree to another extension, which he said "would not comfort our shippers, customers and steamship lines who are currently diverting cargo," he added it would not lock out the dockworkers without an agreement.
"We do not intend to lock out anyone, and we will continue to work all cargo while the union has time to consider this final proposal," he said in an email. "We believe the union intends to work all cargo and there will be no job action while a vote is taken on our final and best offer."
The proposal provides for wage increases for longshoremen working automobiles, forest products and cruise lines. Angelos has called the increases "unprecedented."
For example, a rookie longshoremen working automobiles under the proposed contract would see his pay double, from $16 an hour to $32 an hour. Longshoremen working automobiles in Philadelphia make $24 an hour, while those in Norfolk make $17, Angelos said.
"We want our customers to know that we have submitted a proposed agreement that we anticipate will [be] finalized without the need for another extension," Angelos said in an email Thursday. "We believe this offer will be favorably received by Local 333."
McKenzie has repeatedly declined to comment on specifics of the proposed contract, saying his goal is to secure a "fair and equitable" contract for Local 333 members.
Many officials in Maryland are eager to see the dispute resolved.
Port-related businesses directly employ 15,000 people and support tens of thousands of more jobs in the region, according to the Maryland Port Administration. The port is responsible for $3 billion a year in personal wages and salaries and more than $300 million a year in state and local taxes.
When Local 333 went on strike in October, members voted 517 to 25 against the proposed local contract, union leaders said, and stopped working cargo covered under both the local and master contracts.
The port's three other ILA unions had already signed local contracts at the time, but honored Local 333's picket lines.
The stoppage reverberated out from the port's public terminals, where work ceased, to businesses across the region, leaving cargo processors, truckers and steamship crews without work for days. At least one ship diverted to another port.
The strike ended when a federal arbitrator ruled Local 333 had violated a no-strike clause in the master contract, and instituted the cooling-off period.
"The violations described have caused and are causing substantial and potentially irreparable harm and injury to the STA members and customers," wrote arbitrator M. David Vaughn at the time, "and are causing losses of revenues and customer goodwill and have jeopardized future business at the port."