Talks between dockworkers and port employers resumed in Baltimore yesterday with both sides appearing determined to avert a work stoppage.
After the resounding rejection of the proposed local contract on Wednesday, management and labor agreed to extend the existing contract and allow longshoremen to return to their jobs yesterday while negotiations continue.
"Clearly, no one in this industry on either side of the fence wants a strike," said Bill Schonowski, president of the International Longshoremen's Association's Local 333, which represents some 900 cargo handlers.
A work stoppage would send a devastating message about stability in the port of Baltimore, which is already losing cargo amid revolutionary changes in the maritime industry.
The contract extension, however, is not indefinite.
"It's day to day, but we're optimistic that a resolution will come very shortly," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association.
The two sides met yesterday afternoon, and the ILA leaders have scheduled a meeting with the rank and file tonight in Highlandtown.
"There are critical issues that must be resolved before the contract can be approved," Schonowski said.
"Clearly, there has to be changes in what management handed us in their final proposal. We simply cannot absorb all these cuts."
Schonowski conceded yesterday that the union's rank and file needs to understand that significant cost-cutting is needed to attract cargo to the port.
In the past year, container business has declined and some of the break-bulk business has been stagnant as well.
Longshoremen are paid only when they work, and many of the 1,300 dockworkers work far less than 40 hours a week.
"We have very little break-bulk in our port right now," Schonow-ski said.
"This type of approach is an attempt to bring new work into the port. It's work we don't have right now, and whatever we get will be a gain."
Still, reversing the 736-129 vote will be difficult without management concessions as well. In addition to cutting wages and gang size for handling break-bulk cargo, the contract eliminated the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) program, which supplements longshoremen's pay to assure them an annual income of $30,000.
Established three decades ago to offset the impact of automation, the GAI has long been considered sacred by the ILA.
Largely because of attrition, the number of workers who receive GAI payments has declined steadily and now represents only 10 percent of the port's 1,300 longshoremen.
But forthcoming cuts in the size of gangs that load and unload both containers and break-bulk cargo could result in more men drawing GAI benefits next year.
The local contract, in fact, would replace the GAI with a work assistance program that provides similar benefits. That program would expire in three years.
Employers argue that the GAI, which now costs them $5 million a year, drives up the cost of handling cargo in Baltimore and puts the port at a disadvantage with competing ports that have eliminated or suspended GAI pyaments.
In a meeting tonight, Schonowski is expected to ask dockworkers if they would accept a buyout in exchange for giving up the GAI.
Last year Local 953, which represents the clerks and checkers, gave up GAI benefits in exchange for such a deal.
Pub Date: 10/04/96