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Port officials optimistic on possible strike

As East Coast and Gulf of Mexico dockworkers consider striking in the midst of tense contract negotiations, Maryland Port Administration officials have a little less sweat on their brows than their counterparts from Maine to Texas.

That’s because a strike may only affect offloading of container ships at the Port of Baltimore’s public terminals, where new, super-sized cranes are expected to begin operating this month.

Longshoremen responsible for automobiles and roll on/roll off cargo, such as farm equipment, likely won’t stop unloading that cargo should the International Longshoremen Association failed to reach an agreement on a new master contract with the United States Maritime Alliance and go on strike.

The Port of Baltimore ranked No. 1 among U.S. ports in both categories in 2011.

That’s not an accident, says port Executive Director James J. White. The diversity of the port’s imports and exports is planned to minimize damage caused by the temporary or permanent loss of any one component of its business.

White said Monday he is hopeful that local longshoremen will continue work on non-container imports even if a new contract cannot be completed. The master contract only specifically addresses work with containers.

“That’s our desire. But you never know how labor will react,” White said. “They’ve told us that a lot of the cargo that moves through the port at the public facility handled by the ILA will continue to be handled. But you never know until the ship is here.”

Officials at Baltimore’s three ILA locals did not return phone calls seeking comment. More than 2,000 ILA members are based in Baltimore.

The port is in the midst of strong year after longshoremen moved 4.83 million tons of general cargo in the first six months of 2012. The all-time record for a full year is 8.96 million tons.

White said a strike would threaten what otherwise would be a record-shattering year for the port.

“We’ve really been on a roll here at the port, and I think both labor and management realize that,” White said. “I hear locally from everybody that’s involved in international trade ‘we want to keep the momentum going.’”

Negotiations, which stalled after an Aug. 22 meeting, are being restarted Sept. 17. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has stepped in to assist in negotiations. The deadline for ILA and the United States Maritime Alliance to agree to a new contract is Sept. 30. Otherwise, container offloading will stop at the docks on Oct. 1.

The last ILA strike was 1977. In 2002, West Coast longshoremen — members of a different union — went on strike and cost the national economy $2 billion a day. White said that number will be substantially larger if East Coast and Gulf longshoremen go on strike next month.

White said it was not unusual for negotiations of a new contract to butt up against a previous contract’s expiration date — “I would not be surprised at all to see this settled at 11 o’clock … on Sept. 30,” he said — but added that if negotiations were happening locally rather than at the national level, there would be little to worry about.

“We’ve worked to form a labor-management partnership … this is where these partnerships actually pay off,” White said. “In our opinion, they don’t want to go on strike. A lot of them, like a lot of us, live paycheck to paycheck.

“We’re optimistic. These are solid men and women that work on our pier every day.”

Even if the worst happens, White said he is “hopeful” automobiles, farm and construction equipment will continue to roll on and off ships in Baltimore. The port’s growing cruise service will continue running, too, he said.

In 2011, Baltimore processed a record 551,000 automobiles, on the way to its No. 1 ranking among U.S. ports. Last year was also a record-breaking 12 months for cruises at the port, as more than 250,000 people and more than 100 cruises left Baltimore.

The port boards the fifth-most cruise passengers on the East Coast and 14th-most in the nation, according to the Maryland Port Administration.