With less than a week remaining before the expiration of the contract for dockworkers in Baltimore, negotiators for waterfront management and the International Longshoremen's Association are poised for marathon negotiating sessions today and tomorrow in the hopes of reaching an accord this weekend.
"This is going to be a long weekend," David L. Bindler, the regional director for Maersk Line in Baltimore, said yesterday. He voiced optimism that the remaining issues can be resolved. "I think we can get things ironed out," he said.
ILA Vice President Horace Alston, the highest-ranking union official in the port, said he, too, hoped an accord could be reached in the next few days.
"We're making progress," Mr. Alston said.
The two sides are scheduled to resume negotiations this morning on a contract to replace the one that expires next Friday. Substantial pressure exists to reach an under
standing well before the strike deadline of midnight Friday.
The union has told management it wants its members to have three days to consider any proposal before they actually vote on a new contract. Consequently, if the longshoremen are to vote on a contract next Thursday or Friday, union leaders would have to have a proposal to present to their members by Monday or Tuesday.
One union member said ILA officials are hoping a vote can be scheduled for Thursday.
The most difficult issue in the talks, both sides agree, has been the guaranteed annual income program -- a benefits plan for unemployed and underemployed longshoreman. Under the terms of the GAI, a longshoreman can collect up to $28,800 under the current base wage of $18 per hour.
Union officials say the high levels of unemployment among longshoremen in Baltimore make the GAI program particularly important to their members now. Management, however, argues that the increasing costs of the GAI program are eroding the port's ability to compete, particularly with archrival Hampton Roads, Va.
The GAI is funded by an assessment employers pay for each hour a worker is employed on the docks. That assessment now stands at $2.75 per hour. The GAI fund is currently operating at a deficit and employers are considering raising the assessment, perhaps to as much as $5 an hour.
While the booming Virginia ports also have a GAI provision in their contract, there is no unemployment among longshoremen there and no need for an assessment to fund the GAI program.
In Baltimore, management has been pressing the union to make concessions on GAI. Management and the union have agreed not to discuss publicly the content of the negotiations, but one union source said yesterday that management wants the union to agree to revisions in the eligibility rules in order to reduce the number of longshoremen who collect.
Under the present rules, to be eligible a longshoreman must have worked at least 700 hours in 1982 or 1983. The union source said management now wants to restrict the benefits to those workers who had logged 1,000 hours in two of the last four years. Such a provision would dramatically reduce the number of people who collect.
Last year almost 600 longshoremen collected GAI benefits that totaled more than $8 million.
Last month an agreement was reached in Florida on a master contract governing all ILA ports on the East and Gulf coasts. That pact, ratified by Baltimore longshoremen in a vote on Tuesday, calls for a $1 annual increase in the hourly base wage, which would rise to $19 in the first year and reach $22 in the fourth and final year.
Union leaders at the national talks in Florida also agreed to cut two people from the basic 20-worker crews that load and unload containerships. One worker would be cut in the first year and a second would be cut in the third year.
The master contract also has given local negotiators the authority to work out more flexible hours for both the terminal workers who receive and deliver cargo and the cargo handlers who load and unload ships.
Management in Baltimore hopes an agreement can be reached in the local talks to permit terminals in Baltimore to open earlier and stay open later.
The employers also want the right to establish a midnight starting time for ship-loading operations. (Under the current rules, longshoremen who work at night are paid from 7 p.m. even if the ship does not arrive until hours later.)