The dockworkers union and waterfront employers moved closer to an accord last night, diminishing the chances of a port strike at midnight tonight.
Formal negotiations started at 7 p.m, ending a two-day stalemate, and, at times during the night, a settlement appeared imminent.
"They've made progress but some differences remain," said Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, who was present as an observer. At 1 a.m. fatigue was beginning to set in, Mr. O'Malley said.
Yesterday afternoon, Edward Burke, the leader of Local 333, the largest International Longshoremen's Association unit in the port, emerged smiling from a meeting with management officials and said, "I think we'll be all right. We'll get it settled."
After three hours of negotiations last night, management negotiators began meeting separately with each of the four union locals involved.
Even if a settlement is reached today, a ratification vote by the dockworkers probably would not occur until next week. Work on the docks could continue, however, with an extension of the current contract.
Baltimore experienced a three-day longshoremen's strike in January, at a time when all of the other ILA ports had settled.
Since then, the state has gone to great lengths to convince the shipping industry that Baltimore has put its labor problems behind it. That effort was led by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who on trips to Europe and the Far East met with steamship line officials to boast of the new labor climate in Baltimore.
A representative of a steamship line that is banking on that new climate said yesterday that he thought an extension of the contract would hurt efforts to promote the port.
"I'm against an extension. I believe it's time everybody straightened up their act. I think we should straighten up now," said Lorenzo di Casagrande, head of operations in Baltimore for Mediterranean Shipping Co.
Mediterranean was the first line to sign a lease for the port's new Seagirt Marine Terminal, in which the state has invested more than a quarter of a billion dollars. The line considers that lease agreement an expression of its confidence in the future of the port of Baltimore.
Mr. di Casagrande said his company has been working hard to bring new business to the port. Any extension of the contract, he said, would not be "helpful."
An extension would convey the idea that Baltimore had not really solved its labor problems, he said.
The negotiations came to an abrupt halt Tuesday, when leaders of four of the five ILA locals in the port rejected what management characterized as its final offer. (The fifth group, the clerks of Local 953, is negotiating separately from the other four ILA locals in Baltimore. The clerks were scheduled to meet with management at midnight last night but canceled. Talks are expected to resume with them today. The talks with the clerks are making progress, participants from both sides of the negotiations said.)
On Wednesday night, the cargo handlers of Local 333 demonstrated support for their leaders by overwhelmingly rejecting management's proposal in an informal voice vote.
The port's two principal competitors already have reached accords on their local contracts.
Edward L. Brown Sr., an ILA vice president who is the ranking union official in Hampton Roads, Va., said yesterday that a tentative agreement had been reached there and would be submitted to the membership for ratification today.
"I'm recommending it very highly," he said of the agreement.
James McNamara, a spokesman for the ILA in New York, said an agreement had been reached there as well. A ratification vote is scheduled for Dec. 11.