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East Coast port workers, operators to meet with federal mediator

WASHINGTON — Both sides in the East Coast and Gulf Coast port labor negotiations have agreed to meet with a federal mediator before the Dec. 29 contract expiration, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said Monday.

Statements on the websites of the International Longshoremen's Assn. and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, representing operators of 15 ports, confirmed they have agreed to meet. Details about the timing and location of the meeting were not released.

Contract talks between the port operators and unionized dockworkers collapsed last week, a move that could lead to the shutdown of the ports on Dec. 30.

Each side blamed the other for the breakdown in negotiations. The union said it has approved a strike if a new contract agreement isn't in place.

The strike could create major problems for furniture importers who are trying to build up inventories in advance of the Chinese New Year, which begins Feb. 10.

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.

A major issue appears to be supplemental wage payments known as container royalties. The Maritime Alliance wants to eliminate the payments for new employees and phase them out for current employees over a 25-year period. The union, however, says container royalties are "untouchable."

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