The members of the largest dockworkers local in Baltimore endorsed last night their leaders' decision to reject management's "final" local contract offer.
In a voice vote at the union hiring hall in East Baltimore, about 400 members of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association overwhelmingly backed their leaders' decision, made Tuesday.
James Williams, a Local 333 member who has worked about 16 years on the docks, said after the meeting that unless management revises its offer, he and his fellow workers are ready to strike when the contract expires tomorrow at midnight. "If it don't change, we're going on strike," he declared. "Nobody wants a strike but we can't accept this."
Tuesday, leaders of four of the five locals in the port told management they could not accept the proposal. Last night Local 333 President Edward Burke explained the offer's provisions to the members, then asked the cargo handlers to vote.
Management's proposal would tighten the eligibility requirements for the guaranteed annual income program that provides benefits to longshoremen who cannot find work on the docks. The union had also hoped that employers in Baltimore would not insist on the cuts in work crews worked out last month in Florida as part of a master contract agreement governing all ILA ports on the East and Gulf coasts.
The combination of tougher GAI rules and smaller work crews left many of the longshoremen worried about their futures.
"We won't accept it," said Wesley E. Thomas, who has worked on the docks for about 16 years. Mr. Thomas belonged to a gang that loaded and unloaded United States Lines ships before the American-flag steamship company went bankrupt four years ago. Since then he has averaged less than 200 hours of work a year. Under the stricter rules he would be cut from the GAI rolls, which would require require 300 hours in two of the last three years.
Other dockworkers who would still be eligible for GAI under the new rules fear that if they agree to cut people such as Mr. Thomas, their turn will come next.
John W. Blom, a member of Local 333's executive board, said the members had simply endorsed their leadership's actions in rejecting the offer and that the vote was not a formal authorization of a strike.
It's still possible the two sides can resume negotiations and work something out, he said. "If there are no negotiations, we're on strike midnight Friday," he said, adding, "Nobody likes a strike. They don't want one. We don't want one."
The two sides steadfastly maintained their positions yesterday without resuming the negotiations that broke off Tuesday.
"No meetings have been scheduled," Maurice C. Byan, chief negotiator for waterfront employers, said yesterday. "We're willing to talk. I would hope they reach out to us."
The threat of a strike reportedly has prompted at least one line in the port, Mediterranean Shipping Co., to begin diverting cargo from Baltimore to other ports. Its next ship is still due at Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore Monday, however.
Management is holding two sets of talks with the longshoremen. One set, with the clerks of Local 953, reportedly is making progress. The other set, with the remaining four locals, broke down with the rejection of management's "final" offer.