The crunch is on again, with time dwindling rapidly for reaching a new labor agreement for the International Longshoremen's Association before the current contract expires Nov. 30.
Although neither the ILA nor its employers are ready to warn of a December strike, the shipping industry would be justifiably concerned about such a possibility.
The two sides have been discussing a new master contract since September 1988.
Yet two years later and a bit more than two months before the current contract expires, the two parties aren't any closer to agreement than they were a year ago when they extended the contract until Nov. 30.
The latest round of contract talks fizzled out earlier this month in Tampa, Fla., with both sides' hard-line stances unwavering on the important issues of wages, gang sizes and contributions to union benefit plans -- an indication of the seriousness with which both management and labor view the contract and the impact it will have on the industry.
Anthony Tozzoli, president of the New York Shipping Association and one of the lead management negotiators, said the differences can be resolved, but he conceded the parties are far apart.
John Bowers, ILA president, said in Tampa that his foremost priority is getting a contract that will preserve union jobs.
That's diametrically opposed to management's position that it needs to reduce gang sizes, as well as promote greater work rule flexibility, in order to survive.
Management's only sweetening on the job preservation issue was an offer to pay for the retraining of employees who lose their jobs to automation.
That doesn't leave much middle ground on which to reach accord.
Mr. Tozzoli said an agreement must be reached when the two parties resume negotiations Oct. 29 because that late date will leave only about a month to hammer out local contracts.
Although little time remains before the contract's expiration, Mr. Tozzoli said he believes the deadline can be beaten.
One factor in favor of that is that the talks have been less rancorous overall than those in 1986.