A freight container is lowered onto a tractor trailer at the Port of Boston. (Steven Senne / Associated…)
The labor contract covering more than 15,000 dockworkers at 14 Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast ports has been extended for 30 more days, heading off a strike that could have begun as early as Sunday.
George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government agency, said the International Longshoremen's Association and United States Maritime Alliance Ltd. had reached an agreement on one of the most contentious issues in the talks.
That issue involves so-called container royalty fees on cargo, which supplement dockworker wages. Employers have sought to cap those fees and limit who gets them. The union has opposed those changes.
"The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties," Cohen said in a statement, "subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement."
The parties also agreed to extend their contract an additional 30 days, until midnight Jan. 28, Cohen said.
The ILA and the maritime alliance, which represents cargo shipping lines, cargo terminals and port associations on the East and Gulf coasts, have been negotiating since March to reach agreement on a new six-year contract.
When the last contract expired in September, both sides agreed to a 90-day contract extension that was set to expire this weekend.
The 14 seaports that would have been affected by a strike include several of the largest outside of the western United States.
According to the American Assn. of Port Authorities, the 14 ports handle 44% of the cargo containers that enter or leave the U.S.
Those facilities include the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey, which ranks third behind the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in cargo container traffic.
Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, and Houston, the busiest on the Gulf Coast, would have also been affected.
The possibility of another strike on the heels of a walkout that idled most of the Port of Los Angeles and half of the Port of Long Beach for eight days, beginning in late November, had worried some retailers, manufacturers, farmers and other port customers.
On Thursday, the Obama administration urged both sides to "continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible" to avoid a strike.
The National Retail Federation, which represents many of the nation's largest retail chains, said Friday it was pleased to learn of the latest contract extension.
“We continue to urge both parties to remain at the negotiating table until a long-term contract agreement is finalized," said Matthew Shay, chief executive of the federation.