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Port labor contract extension averts strike

WASHINGTON - A shutdown of 14 East and Gulf Coast ports has been averted - at least temporarily - as port operators and unionized dockworkers agreed to extend their labor agreement until Feb. 6 while they continue to negotiate a new contract.
     The International Longshoremen's Assn. and the U.S. Maritime Alliance did reach an agreement in principle, however, on the contentious issue of container royalty payments, which had been holding up an agreement, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
     "While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming extension period," said FMCS director George Cohen, who is mediating the talks along with deputy director Scot Beckenbaugh.
     The mediation service didn't disclose specifics of the agreement on container royalties, which are supplemental wage payments based on cargo weight.
     Earlier, the Maritime Alliance said it wanted to cap container royalty payments and use the excess not as savings for employers, but to help pay for other benefits for port workers.
     The union, however, had said container royalties were "untouchable."
     Contract talks had collapsed about a week before the Dec. 29 contract expiration, prompting fears of a shutdown of the ports.
     The original contract expired in late September, but the two sides agreed to a three-month extension while they continued to negotiate with the help of a federal mediator.

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