Richard P. Hughes Jr., leader of unionized clerical workers in the port of Baltimore, ordered his members off their jobs yesterday morning, a work stoppage that state secretary of transportation Richard H. Trainor denounced as devastating to the port's rebuilding efforts.
"We've been working for three years to overcome our labor image. It's terrible," Mr. Trainor said yesterday. "It goes back to one man's ego," a clear reference to Mr. Hughes.
"It will take years to overcome what happened today," Mr. Trainor said.
Without clerks to staff the gates, trucks were unable to get cargo in or out of the port's major marine terminals. But the walkout by the clerks of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association, the second ILA strike this year, did not halt all port operations.
Since Mr. Hughes did not order his members to erect picket lines, other ILA workers were able to continue loading and unloading some vessels. Picket lines were scheduled to go up this morning, however, raising the possibility of confrontation with the other four locals, which overwhelmingly approved their contract last night, 931-171.
William Chan, head of operations in Baltimore for Evergreen Marine Corp., a Taiwanese line, said he understood that the two sides were looking for a way out of the dispute. "They may talk," he said, adding that he had heard there was "contact behind the scenes."
Paul E. Schurick, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's press secretary, added to the criticism directed at Mr. Hughes. "The governor is truly disgusted by this action," he said. "The future of the port is being put at risk by a very small number of people."
Steve Acton, a 45-year-old member of Local 333, said he intends to keep working. He was sharply critical of Mr. Hughes, even though his father was an ILA clerk and three of his brothers belong to Local 953. "He's looking out for the interests of Local 953," Mr. Acton said of Mr. Hughes. "He doesn't care diddly about the rest."
While those locals were voting to accept their contract offer, the members of Local 953 voted 309-1 to reject management's offer.
Waterfront employers had been negotiating with Mr. Hughes, the leader of ILA Local 953, virtually around the clock since Friday.
The current contract expired at midnight Friday, but the two sides continued to talk, and the ILA clerks continued to work. As late as 2 a.m. yesterday, Mr. Hughes expressed confidence that a peaceful settlement would be reached.
But the talks broke down about 7 a.m., after Mr. Hughes had rejected management's "final" offer.
Mr. Hughes blamed the collapse of the talks on interference from state officials, including Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director the Maryland Port Administration, and Michael Angelos, the manager of the state subsidiary that operates Seagirt Marine Terminal.
"We made a Herculean effort to resolve the problems in this port, but political considerations overrode the needs and aspirations of people who labor on the docks," he said yesterday morning. "We believe it was the interference of the state that stopped us from getting that agreement."
The state has taken a much more direct role in the contract talks this year because of the state's involvement as manager of Seagirt.
The talks fell apart over two issues, according to Mr. Hughes -- fringe benefit money and jurisdiction over work done on computers.
Employers rejected a proposal from Local 953 that contributions to fringe benefit programs be used only for pension and medical benefits funds. Mr. Hughes argued that management's refusal showed that it had other uses in mind for those funds, specifically the guaranteed-annual-income program.
The GAI, which pays benefits to eligible longshoremen when they cannot find work on the docks, is running a deficit in the millions of dollars. One of the key goals of management in the talks has been to bring the cost of the GAI program under control.
Mr. Hughes argued that management's stance on the fringe benefits was a threat not just to his local but to the pension and benefits funds of all the longshoremen in the port.
Management moved yesterday to assure members of other locals that there was no threat to their pension and medical benefits funds. In a letter to Local 333 leader Edward Burke, Maurice C. Byan, the chief negotiator for management, said, "No allocation from the contributions provided for . . . in the Master Contract will be transferred to other than the Pension and/or Benefits funds."
Copies of the letter were circulated among longshoremen voting at the union hiring hall in East Baltimore.
Mr. Hughes said he had also been seeking the same jurisdiction over computer work his men now have at the new highly computerized Seagirt Marine Terminal, which opened in September. Such an agreement would eliminate the need to work out a separate agreement for each terminal in the port and make for greater stability, he argued.