Two factions of the International Longshoremen's Association here seemed headed for a showdown as cargo clerks prepared last night for an early-morning picket line and many cargo handlers vowed to keep Baltimore's port operating.
"I'm working tomorrow," said Dennis Celio, a cargo handler who was at the Oldham Street union hall in East Baltimore after his and three other ILA units voted to accept a 46-month contract last night.
Aubrey Thornton, another cargo handler who also lingered at the union hall after the vote last night, said he, too, would work today.
"We don't owe the checkers any loyalty," he said, explaining that the checkers -- clerks who do the paper work on the cargo that passes through Baltimore's port -- generally work inside, while cargo handlers have to work outside in the cold rain or sweltering heat.
The clerks' unit rejected its contract offer yesterday, while the other four locals were voting to approve their agreement, which provides the longshoremen with their first hourly pay raise in five years.
Albert Worsley, another cargo handler, said he thought he and other cargo handlers could keep the port operating despite the strike.
"I can be a checker. It is not hard. I can read and write," he said.
Across town, at the checkers' union hall on Hull Street near Fort McHenry, an entry mat reading "Go Away" lay in front of the door. Inside, checkers threaded strings into strike placards last night.
Asked what would happen if other longshoremen crossed their picket line, scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., John Shade, the clerks' local president, shrugged his shoulders and said cryptically, "I guess what will happen is what usually happens."
Despite indications that the non-striking longshoremen's units might try to keep the port operating, Baltimore area shippers reacted with dismay and disgust yesterday to the clerks' decision to strike.
Some shippers suggested that their ties to the port of Baltimore are being stretched to the breaking point by the second strike to hit Baltimore's port this year.
"It's getting much more difficult to justify the use of the port," said Aristides Cederakis, transportation manager at Environmental Elements Corp.
The Baltimore-based company ships nearly all of its international business through the port, Mr. Cederakis said, but the seemingly constant labor problems are making the company's customers nervous.
"Our customers always get a little concerned" about being able to get their products out of the port, he said. "They're getting a little more active in designating the port of import," Mr. Cederakis said, and some are beginning to urge Environmental Elements to abandon Baltimore.
"We do a lot of business off the piers, and this is a sad, sad thing," said George M. Baker, a sales manager for Delmarva Chemical Co. in Baltimore. "Every time this happens we lose a little bit more" cargo at the port, he said.
Mr. Baker said Delmarva has four or five truckloads stranded on the docks because of the strike.
"If this strike goes on, people will have to divert their freight elsewhere," he said, adding that whenever that happens, the port is unable to recapture all of what was lost.
He said that Delmarva doesn't want to leave Baltimore but added, "We're going to have to move somewhere" until the labor situation clears up.