At least one ship line planned to begin diverting cargo away from the Port of Baltimore today, after dockworker union leaders rejected a contract proposal that management termed its "best and final" offer.
Leaders of the Baltimore District Council of the International Longshoremen's Association, bargaining for four of the port's five ILA locals, yesterday voted not to submit the seven-page contract offer to their membership for a vote.
There is time for further negotiating, but if neither side blinks, a strike could idle the docks when the current contract expires Friday at midnight. That would be the second strike this year, a potentially devastating event for a port that has struggled for years to shake an image of instability.
Management, represented by the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., proposed a pact that would provide for midnight work shifts at premium pay, keep marine terminals open longer, raise the pay of some workers, such as linehandlers, and toughen eligibility for a controversial job-security benefits program.
"We hope they will reconsider and seriously consider the offer and take it to their membership," said Maurice Byan, president of the trade association. No further negotiations were planned.
Edward Burke, president of ILA Local 333, the port's biggest, said, "It wasn't their best and it better not be their final offer."
Mediterranean Shipping Co. planned to begin today diverting some cargo deliveries to Hampton Roads, Va., said Lorenzo DiCasagrande, head of the line in Baltimore.
"We cannot jeopardize our operations and have to look at all the possibilities," DiCasagrande said. "I am very much concerned."
Both sides refused to discuss specifics. But sources familiar with the talks said the most sharply disputed element is a plan to cut the costs of the port's Guaranteed Annual Income program. About 600 of the port's 2,500 ILA members receive payments under the plan, which pays eligible longshoremen when there is not enough work for them.
Management proposed limiting the plan to ILA members who have worked a minimum of 300 hours in two out of the past three contract years. Currently, members are eligible for up to $19,800 a year in payments as long as they worked at least 700 hours in the 1982 and 1983 contract years. If the member logged 10 years of at least 700 hours each, the maximum payment is $28,800.
The proposal also provides for a third -- midnight -- shift to load and unload ships that reach the port at night. Third-shift workers would be guaranteed eight hours of pay with six hours at 1 1/2 times the standard wage, and two hours at double time. Any work beyond 7 a.m. would be paid double rate.
The basic wage rate for longshoremen handling containerized cargo is set in a national contract, ratified last week. Local bargainers are working on a supplemental, local agreement that deals with issues left up to each port.
Under the terms of the three-year, 10-month national agreement, longshoremen will see their wages rise from the current $18 an hour to $22 by 1993. That would mean that third-shift workers would, by the final year of the contract, earn $242 for a seven-hour shift, or about $35 an hour.
The proposal also calls for flexible scheduling of terminal workers to accommodate longer hours of business at marine terminals. Workers will still receive premium pay for work before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m., but could be scheduled as needed.
One union official said the offer contained insufficient improvements in exchange for the scheduling provisions that management wants. "They knew this wouldn't pass," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The union is seeking, but management is not offering, an additional two utility workers for each of the longshoremen work crews.
"We're willing to keep talking," Burke said. If a tentative agreement is reached before Friday night, the sides could agree to extend the current pact a few days to accommodate a vote.
William Chan, local head of Evergreen Line, said the company would work to clear cargo quickly from a ship scheduled to arrive before the deadline Friday. If a strike occurs, the line will try to get its goods to New York or Hampton Roads, he said.
Sources said talks were still under way at New York and Philadelphia. Longshoremen at Hampton Roads will vote Friday on a tentative agreement reached yesterday.
Ed Brown, ILA chief in Hampton Roads, said he is recommending the pact but added: "It ain't over till the fat lady sings. You don't have a contract until both parties ratify."
During a three-day strike here in January, ship lines tried to divert their cargo to Hampton Roads, but ILA workers there refused to handle it. It is up to the union's headquarters to allow non-striking workers to handle strike cargo, Brown said.
Meanwhile, talks were progressing with ILA Local 953, said Byan of the trade association. The local represents cargo clerks and is bargaining independently of the other locals. Sources said those talks have been going surprisingly well, although no final offer has been made by management.