Federal mediators will attempt to restart stalled contract talks between the union representing 14,500 East and Gulf coast dockworkers and the group representing their employers in an effort to avert the first strike in 35 years.
A strike would clot the shipment of billions of dollars of goods in and out of the eastern United States at the peak of the holiday shipping season, potentially driving up prices and threatening the nation's nascent economic recovery. The dockworkers' current contract expires Oct. 1.
Baltimore port officials greeted word of federal mediators' intervention with relief.
The Maryland Port Administration had begun making contingency plans for a walkout or work slowdown. After a closed-door briefing Thursday morning, the administration's commissioners voiced concern that a disruption could put the brakes on strides made by the port since the recession.
"I'm scared," said Commissioner Helen Bentley, the former head of the Federal Maritime Commission and a five-term congresswoman. "I understand that the longshoremen have to be protected — and they have been for many years. But the new leadership at the ILA has been making threats unlike any we've had on the East and Gulf coast negotiations in 35 years."
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced Thursday that the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance will resume negotiations during the week of Sept. 17, just two weeks before the contract is set to expire.
"Due to the sensitivity of this high profile dispute and consistent with the agency's long standing practice, we will not disclose either the location of the meeting or the content of the substantive negotiations that will take place," Director George Cohen said in a statement.
ILA spokesman Jim McNamara said mediators contacted both sides Wednesday to get talks back on track.
"This is encouraging. We're grateful," McNamara said. "It's before Oct. 1, so, yeah, there's time."
Bentley agreed it was encouraging but remained cautious.
"I'm glad to have the FMCS because it means the federal government is very serious about this," she said. "The administration certainly did not want a waterfront strike before the election."
James White, the port's executive director, said he remained optimistic despite the looming deadline.
"The guys on the pier don't want to strike. Management doesn't want to strike. We don't want to stop our momentum," he said.
Baltimore's longshoremen are represented by four locals. Rocky McKenzie, a spokesman for 1,000-member Local 333 — the largest shop — said his organization wouldn't comment on the resumption of talks or the prospects for settlement.
"We'll wait to hear from our negotiating team," he said.
The sudden deterioration of labor relations came as a shock to port officials and the business community.
The union and the maritime alliance, which negotiates for 43 port managers and shippers from Maine to Texas, have successfully negotiated nine master contracts — with time to spare — dating back to 1977. The latest deal, which took effect in 2004, was extended two years to allow the economy to recover and ports to get back on their feet.
It looked like business as usual when talks began in Tampa, Fla., last March. After two days of meetings, negotiators issued a joint statement saying they expected to reach an agreement "well before the expiration of the current contract" at midnight on Sept. 30. They issued another upbeat report after meeting in July.
But just hours into discussions on Aug. 22, everything fell apart. The union accused the maritime alliance of raising issues not previously discussed and adopting a "take it or leave it" stance on overtime pay and other provisions. The alliance said the ILA wouldn't compromise on management's need to adopt new technology to stay competitive and take advantage of profitable Pacific Rim business and Panama Canal traffic.
"But without the productivity improvements that technology can help deliver, ships carrying that cargo will find somewhere else to go," the maritime alliance said in a statement.
The alliance also wants to update work rules to eliminate what it calls redundancies and cap so-called container royalties paid to longshoremen. The royalties began in 1960 to compensate dockworkers for the emerging containerized cargo, which required less labor to move between ship and shore. At the time little cargo moved in the truck-sized containers; now much of it does. The payments mean an extra $14,000 a year for each worker.
When negotiations fizzled, McNamara said union members realized they might have to strike.
"I don't know that there are any other options," he said. "We're hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst."
To show their resolve, the local for the Port of New York and New Jersey — the ILA's largest — voted last week to authorize its president to call a strike when the contract expires.