Dock workers and the management of 15 East Coast and Gulf ports reached a tentative agreement on a new master contract late Friday night, averting a threatened walkout on Wednesday.
The six-year deal between the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents 14,500 workers, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which negotiates for ports and shipping companies, is still subject to ratification by both sides and to agreements between local unions and port managers. Details were not released.
The ports covered under the contract, including Baltimore, handle about 40 percent of the nation's container cargo.
Strike preparations were taking shape at the Port of Baltimore in advance of the Feb. 6 deadline when the announcement came from federal mediator George Cohen. About 1,200 longshoremen work at the port. A strike would have halted all container cargo but would not have affected bulk cargo, passenger cruise ships or roll-on, roll-off cargo such as cars and farm equipment.
Port officials and the retail industry expressed relief that cargo and goods will continue to reach the marketplace without interruption.
"I congratulate both labor and management as well as thank the federal mediator on moving a very difficult labor agreement forward to a rank and file vote," said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "The Port of Baltimore now has the opportunity to continue its momentum uninterrupted in its targeted commodities."
Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, urged both sides to clear up remaining issues and put the contract to a vote.
"If the tentative agreement holds, the new labor contract will bring much-needed certainty and predictability to the supply chain for retailers, manufacturers, farmers and other industries that rely on the ports to move the nation's commerce and trade," Shay said in a statement.
A crippling coast-wide strike — the first in 35 years — was averted on Dec. 29, when both sides settled a major sticking point on wages and agreed to a six-week contract extension.
Cohen, who entered the talks late last year, said local negotiations "will continue without interruption to any port operation."
He said the union and management bargained in good faith, "avoiding a potential work stoppage that would have had a severe negative impact on the nation's economy."
An eight-day strike last year by 20,000 West Coast dock workers, who are represented by a different union, cost that region's economy an estimated $1 billion a day.