A strike by unionized cargo clerks at the Port of Baltimore today left both longshoremen and shipping company managers unsure of whether the port will be able to continue working.
The leader of the clerks, members of International Longshoremen's Association Local 953, declared the union was on strike after talks broke down this morning. It was the second time in a year the clerks had gone on strike.
Local 953 business agent Richard P. Hughes Jr. said picket lines were to be set this afternoon.
"We're out on strike right now," Hughes said this morning.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer singled Hughes out for blame for the strike. "We tried to negotiate this," Schaefer said, adding that Hughes was "directly responsible" for the strike and is why "we have the worst labor relations on the East Coast."
Schaefer said that his administration would get involved to resolve the strike.
The strike took many at the port by surprise because on Friday a tentative agreement had been reached with ILA locals representing the majority of the port's 2,000 International Longshoremen's Association members.
That agreement, which was expected to be ratified in membership voting today, was negotiated by the Baltimore District Council of the ILA, an umbrella group of the dockworkers' union that traditionally bargains contracts.
However, ILA Local 953 chose to bargain independently for the first time. Talks with the union went into the early morning hours for the past three days.
Shortly before 7:30 this morning, the leadership of the 415-member clerk's union rejected a "final" contract offer of management, represented by the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc.
The members were voting on the proposal until 6 p.m. today. Hughes said the union local was available for further negotiations, but none had been scheduled as of early afternoon.
It was unclear if other union locals would cross the picket lines of Local 953.
One source said rules in the national contract may prevent anyone other than Local 953 from performing clerical work.
The chief negotiator for management, Maurice Byan, who is president of the trade association, said he hoped the union would reconsider its decision.
He said the Port of Philadelphia has been on strike since Saturday, and "We were hoping to get some of its cargo."
The strike could prove to be "devastating" for Baltimore and prompt business to be diverted to other ports, Byan said, although there was no evidence of cargo being diverted as of early this afternoon.
"I hope whatever damage is done will be repaired quickly," Byan said.
The Wall Street Journal today carried a front-page story that contrasted labor-management relations in Baltimore with those in Norfolk, Va. The story's headline said, "At East Coast Ports, Labor Relations Often Determine Prosperity. Mood is Friendly in Norfolk, but prickly in Baltimore, affecting the bottom line."
The story reported that union workers in Norfolk work closely with the shipping companies in an effort to load and unload the ships. It found mistrust and unproductive labor in Baltimore.
One member of Local 953, who spoke on the condition his name not be used, today said, "We don't want to strike. You have to be crazy not to want to be at work."
Business along the Baltimore waterfront was at a near standstill. auto carrier was working with ILA longshoremen but no clerks at a privately owned terminal. And some light, non-ship work was also being conducted at South Locust Point Marine Terminal, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.
Without cargo clerks to process documents, most ships were not being loaded or unloaded. Members of the port's other locals were on standby this morning.
"Everybody's just standing around here waiting to see what's going to happen," said one union leader not affiliated with Local 953.
Hughes said the talks collapsed over the issue of pension and benefit fund contributions. The union wants the $7.45 collected for every hour a member works to be designated for the funds distributing pension and health benefits, Hughes said.
Management, however, wanted language in the contract that Hughes feared could be used to eventually transfer the money to other benefit funds, Hughes said.
Byan declined to comment on the substance of the talks other than to say that management was supporting a provision of the national contract settled two weeks ago. That provision allows for labor and management, by mutual agreement, to shift funds when necessary between benefit programs.
Hughes said there were also differences over jurisdiction. The union is concerned about information it says it has about non-union, state workers collecting and distributing some information at the marine terminals, including the computerized Seagirt terminal.
"Now we are wondering if the state is trying to take our computer work," Hughes said.