The port of Baltimore is finally receiving the Christmas gift it has yearned for all these years: peace on the waterfront and goodwill among workers, employers and the state port agency.
This year, picket lines are out. Christmas parties and dinners are in.
A week ago, the three top leaders of the dockworkers union in Baltimore -- Richard P. Hughes Jr., Edward Burke and Horace Alston -- all had dinner at the Center Club with Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, and Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc. Other participants at the dinner party included the deputy port director and members of the Maryland Port Commission.
"It was great," said Mr. Hughes, leader of the clerks of Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association.
Mr. Hughes welcomed the way the union leaders were treated: as equals rather than foes. "It looks like we're going to be part of the decision-making process, which is all we ever wanted," he said.
In view of the troubled history of the port in the last few years, it is remarkable that the dinner at the Center Club took place at all. That those taking part might have actually have had a good time is little short of astonishing.
The dinner in this bastion of Baltimore's power elite lasted more than three hours. While that could simply be an indication of slow service, Mr. Byan said the participants seemed to enjoy each other's company. "It was a very friendly dinner," he said.
Mr. Teel agreed. The dinner was intended as a show of appreciation for what labor and management have accomplished in the last year. "I thought it was very productive," said Mr. Teel, maintaining that he felt "no tension whatsoever."
During the three previous Christmas seasons, relations with the union were not so cordial. The groups represented at the Center Club were locked in what often seemed like an economic battle to the death of the port.
First there was a bitter dispute in 1988 over jobs at a new state-owned rail yard. The next year, labor and management, prodded by the state, spent the Christmas season in negotiations that culminated in a three-day strike. And last year, yet another set of difficult contract talks produced a two-day strike in December.
"We've had some rough Christmases," said Mr. Burke, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, the largest dockworker's group in the port. In the last three years, he said, "Everybody kind of tore each other up on both sides of the table, even on the same side of the table."
That troubled history left behind a legacy of hostility and suspicion. And if anyone at the dinner might have felt uncomfortable, it would have been the head of the state port agency, Mr. Teel. After all, it was the drive by the state to force changes on both management and labor that underlay all three disputes.
Mr. Teel, however, was still the chief administrator of the Anne Arundel County government when all that was going on. As a newcomer to the port, he has escaped blame for what has happened between the state and the union.
Moreover, he has laid aside the state's most fearsome hammer -- the threat of a state takeover of the piers. This less-intrusive stance has helped to reduce suspicions and to put labor leaders at ease.
Mr. Burke said he initially felt that Mr. Teel's lack of waterfront experience would be a handicap. He has come to see that as an advantage. "He didn't come in with any preconceived ideas," Mr. Burke said.
And what pleases Mr. Burke the most is that Mr. Teel has not attempted to force management and the union to submit to the dictates of the state.
Mr. Teel has not presented himself as "the savior of the port of Baltimore," Mr. Burke said, nor has he attempted to "tell me what's best for my men."
For his part, Mr. Teel said he has tried to open the lines of communication and to understand better the goals and constraints of union leaders so he can look for common ground. "I want to know their conerns, to be able to understand their desires, why they need to do certain things. You can't do that from a distance," he said.
There has been lots of wishful talk during the last four years about how labor relations were improving. But there always seemed to be a crisis lurking just over the horizon, ready to blast those hopes right out of the water.
This time around, however, Mr. Burke sees more reason for optimism. "Everyone respects the others' turf," he said.
John T. Menzies III, the chairman of the private-sector port committee, thinks the current climate has to do with sheer fatigue. "Over the last few years, labor and management have exhausted themselves in terms of their willingness to fight," he said. "We've had a real catharsis. People are tired of it."