Pact extension averts dockworkers' strike

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The union for longshoremen along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico has agreed to extend its contract until early February, averting a possible strike that could have crippled operations at ports that handle about 40 percent of all U.S. container cargo, a federal mediator announced yesterday.

The extension came after the union and an alliance of port operators and shipping lines resolved one of the stickier points in their monthslong contract negotiations, involving royalty payments to the longshoremen for each container they unload.

Negotiations will continue until at least Feb. 6. Some important contract issues remain to be resolved, but the head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, George Cohen, said the agreement on royalties was "a major positive step forward."

Terms of the royalty agreement were not announced.

The master contract between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance originally expired in September. After an earlier extension, it had been set to expire again at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

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A work stoppage would have idled shipments of a vast number of consumer products, from electronics to clothing, and kept U.S. manufacturers from getting parts and raw materials delivered easily.

Business groups expressed relief. "A coastwide port shutdown is not an option. It would have severe economic ramifications for the local, national and even global economies and wreak havoc on the supply chain," said National Retail Federation president Matthew Shay.

Major ports that would have been frozen included the massive terminals serving New York City overseen by the Port Authority, and critical seaports in Savannah, Ga., Houston, and Hampton Roads, Va.

Other ports that would have been affected by a strike are in Boston; the Philadelphia area; Baltimore; Wilmington, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Port Everglades, Fla.; Miami; Tampa, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and New Orleans.

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