Agreement was reached yesterday in Florida on a four-year master contract for longshoremen on the East and Gulf coasts.
Maurice Byan, the chief negotiator for management in Baltimore, declined to provide details of the settlement but described the agreement as "beneficial for both sides."
He said both sides have agreed not to reveal the contents of the agreement until representatives of management and the union membership have been informed.
The major issues under discussion included the size of the gangs that load and unload containerships and the hours of work.
Management had been pushing for smaller container gangs and greater flexibility for work hours. Under current rules, longshoremen are paid overtime for work done outside the hours of 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Now that agreement has been reached on the master contract, negotiators for both the International Longshoremen's Association and management will return to Baltimore and resume negotiations on the local contract that expires Nov. 30.
The master contract governs most issues concerning the handling of containerized cargo and the basic hourly wage. The local contract governs work rules and some benefit programs, such as the guaranteed annual income, which is expected to be a central issue.
Waterfront management in Baltimore may have little choice but to bargain separately with one of the port's five locals, the unionized clerical workers, commonly known as clerks and checkers.
In the last local contract, Local 953, which represents the port's clerks and is led by Richard P. Hughes Jr., sustained deep cuts when the other four locals voted by a large margin to ratify the contract. Mr. Hughes elected to negotiate separately this time to avoid a similar outcome.
The Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represents management, has asked the National Labor Relations Board to block the clerks from negotiating separately and from holding a separate ratification vote on any contract proposal.
In previous negotiations, contract proposals were submitted to longshoremen for ratification in a portwide vote binding on all five locals of the ILA in Baltimore.
Paul Lang, the attorney representing the STA, said he was growing pessimistic about seeing a quick decision from the NLRB that would resolve the issue.
"The silence, as they say, is deafening," Mr. Lang said. In the meantime the threat of a strike will increase the pressure to come to terms on a new contract. "Nov. 30 is coming like a freight train," he said.
This summer, the Baltimore office of the NLRB sided with Local 953, affirming the right of the clerks to negotiate separately. Management appealed that decision to the national office of the NLRB in Washington.
Cosimo Abato, an attorney representing Local 953, said he and another ILA lawyer argued the union's case last week before NLRB officials in Washington. Representatives of management presented their arguments two weeks ago, he said.
Mr. Lang said NLRB officials have said that they recognize the importance of moving quickly because of the impending negotiations and that they expect to issue a decision in about two weeks.
Even if the NLRB in Washington moves quickly in favor of management, Local 953 might still be able to negotiate separately, since the union could demand a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge. And a ruling there could be appealed to the courts.
"It could be years before it's finally resolved," Mr. Abato said.
Mr. Lang still hopes the NLRB will issue a ruling soon. "It would strengthen our position," he said.
If the NLRB in Washington sides with management, Mr. Abato said, the NLRB could seek an injunction to maintain the status quo while the legal wrangling continued.
Though the NLRB has that authority, "it isn't something they do frequently," Mr. Abato said.