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.
A federal mediator overseeing the negotiations announced Friday that the US Maritime Alliance, an association of shipping companies, and the International Longshoremen’s Association had reach an agreement in principle on the main issue: additional payments for handling container cargo.
“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, said in a statement.
The union and the shippers each declined to comment further.
The contract had expired in September, but was extended for three months to give the negotiations a chance. Now the parties have until Feb. 6 to reach a deal.
The two parties had fought bitterly over royalties paid to the longshoremen 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.
But on Friday, Cohen said, “the container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties,” thereby eliminating the biggest obstacle to a deal. He declined to reveal the terms of that settlement.
In the absence of an agreement, the longshoremen had planned to go on strike at midnight Sunday. The union workers would have continued 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 imported consumer products such as clothing and electronics.
The work stoppage would have dealt a blow to the US economy. The Maritime Alliance claimed that at the Port of New York and New Jersey alone, the strike would have 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 would have shut down the BMW automobile plant in South Carolina and the Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama, which are dependent on parts imported by sea. In addition, Deborah Hadden, acting director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, said a strike would threaten about 1,000 jobs at the Port of Boston.
About 1.5 million tons of container freight pass through Boston’s seaport every year. In 2011, 107,000 containers moved through the port, making it the 12th largest container port on the US Atlantic coast.