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Strike at East Coast ports averted with tentative deal

A threatened strike by dock workers that would have closed much of the port of Boston and other east coast ports has been put off for at least 30 days, after shippers and longshoremen came to terms on a major sticking point in their contract talks.

“While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming 30-day extension period,” George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which has overseen the negotiations, said in a statement.

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The US Maritime Alliance, an association of shipping companies, has been locked in a bitter fight with the International Longshoremen’s Association, the union that represents about 14,000 workers who load and unload ships at ports along the east and gulf coasts, including the Port of Boston. The most sensitive issue involved royalties paid to the longshorement for each shipping container unloaded. The shippers wanted to freeze royalty payments for current workers and eliminate them for those hired in the future. The union rejected the plan, and talks to settle the matter have dragged on for nine months.

In the absence of an agreement, the longshoremen planned to go on strike at midnight Sunday. The union workers would continue to service passenger ships, and freighters carrying perishable goods, military hardware, automobiles and mail. But they planned to stop loading and unloading most shipping containers, such as those holding consumer products like televisions and other electronics.

Such a strike would likely deal a blow to the US economy. The Maritime Alliance claimed that at the Port of New York and New Jersey alone, the strike would cost workers $7.5 million a week in lost wages, while threatening the jobs of 171,000 people whose employment depends on port operations. The shippers also said that a prolonged strike could shut down the BMW automobile plant in South Carolina and the Mercedes Benz factory in Alabama, which are dependent on parts imported by sea.

The Port of Boston handles about 1.5 million tons of containerized freight every year. Deborah Hadden, acting director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, said a strike at the port would threaten about 1,000 jobs.

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