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Contract negotiators for US West Coast ports reach tentative deal: source

Saturday, February 21, 2015 - 10:31
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Shipping companies and terminal operators reached a tentative deal on Friday with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on a new contract for 20,000 dockworkers at 29 US West Coast ports, capping months of contentious labor talks, a source close to the negotiations told Reuters.

[SAN FRANCISCO] Shipping companies and terminal operators clinched a tentative deal with the dockworkers union on Friday, settling a labor dispute that led to months of cargo backups at 29 US West Coast ports and snarled trans-Pacific maritime trade with Asia.

The deal, confirmed in a joint statement by the two sides, was reached after the US labour secretary arrived in San Francisco this week to help broker negotiations that had dragged on for nine months between the shippers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Tensions arising from the talks have played out in worsening cargo congestion that has slowed freight traffic at the ports, which handle nearly half of all US maritime trade and more than 70 per cent of the nation's imports from Asia.

More recently, the shipping companies have sharply curtailed operations at the marine terminals, suspending loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.

Labour Secretary Thomas Perez was sent to California as an emissary of President Barack Obama, who had come under mounting political pressure to intervene in a conflict that by some estimates could have ended up costing the US economy billions of dollars.

According to big-city mayors briefed by Mr Perez on Thursday, the third day of his involvement, the labor secretary suggested the Obama administration intended to invite leaders from both sides to Washington next week to continue the talks if a deal were not reached on Friday.

The 20,000 dockworkers covered by the tentative labor accord have been without a contract since July.

Bargaining, said to have bogged down earlier this week over the issue of binding arbitration, resumed on Friday after Perez met in the morning with the principals, then exited the talks, according to one source close to the situation.

Announcement of an agreement between the union and the shippers on a new five-year labor contract came hours later. The deal is subject to ratification by both parties. No details of the terms were immediately disclosed.

Disruptions at the ports, blamed by each side on the other, have reverberated throughout the US economy, extending to agriculture, manufacturing, retail and transportation.

Cargo loads that would normally take a few days to clear the ports have faced lag times of two weeks or more as dozens of inbound freighters stacked up at anchor along the coast, waiting for berths to open.

A longer-term concern has been that US export business lost to other countries and ports may not return once the West Coast dock worker crisis ends.

Port officials have said it will take many weeks to clear the immediate backlog of cargo containers piled up on the docks once a settlement is reached, and several months for freight traffic to return to a normal rhythm.

REUTERS