Negotiations on a new contract for longshoremen in the port of Baltimore began in earnest yesterday, as management and union leaders voiced optimism that an agreement can be reached without a strike.
"Both sides expressed the position they want to maintain this as a viable port," Richard P. Hughes Jr., leader of the clerks and checkers of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association, said yesterday afternoon after the talks recessed.
"Both sides realize the port needs to grow," said Maurice C. Byan, chief negotiator for the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represents employers of ILA labor. "We're very optimistic."
The current contract expires Nov. 30. Although local discussions began last month, the scope of the talks did not become clear until last week, when negotiators from all ILA ports on the East and Gulf coasts reached agreement in Florida on a master contract.
The master contract agreement would increase the current $18 basic hourly wage by $1 in each of the four years of the new contract. During the Florida talks, the two sides decided to give local negotiators the right to extend the hours marine terminals can remain open and to work out more flexible rules governing the starting times for the loading and unloading of ships at night.
Local negotiators now will try to work out the details of extended terminal hours and late-night ship work.
The most difficult issue facing the local negotiators is likely to be the guaranteed-annual-income program, an unemployment-insurance program. The program is financed through an assessment paid by employers on each hour of ILA labor in the port. The current assessment is $2.75 an hour.
The two sides have agreed not to discuss the negotiations in public. Management has said, however, that it wants to eliminate the GAI program, which it says hurts the port's competitive position. Union leaders have vowed to oppose any effort to eliminate the program, which they say is sorely needed by their members because of a lack of work.
In a departure from recent practice, Local 953 has decided to negotiate its contract separately from the other four locals in the port. Management protested that decision to the National Labor Relations Board, but the NLRB has refused to prohibit Local 953 from negotiating separately.
With less than a month left before the contract expires, management has decided it has no choice but to talk to Mr. Hughes apart from the other locals.
Management met with the four other locals in the morning and with Mr. Hughes and other Local 953 officials in the afternoon. Apparently, no formal proposals were presented by either side in either of the meetings. Describing the initial meeting as "philosophical," Mr. Hughes said the two sides exchanged views. The talks are scheduled to resume today.