By  on July 23, 2012

WASHINGTON — The International Longshoremen’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, representing ocean carriers, said they made “significant progress” this week on several key issues pertaining to a bargaining contract covering ports from Maine to Texas and affecting roughly 20 percent of all apparel, textiles and footwear trade, as the two sides wrapped up a round of talks in Florida on Friday.

An ILA spokesman said the two sides will continue in the “coming weeks” negotiations toward reaching an agreement on a new contract.

“The two sides remain very optimistic of reaching an agreement prior to the Sept. 30, 2012, expiration,” of the master contract, he said.

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Importers have raised concern in recent weeks about the threat of a potential East Coast port strike during the peak holiday delivery season if the two sides fail to reach an agreement on the contract.

“We are pleased to see the progress made by the ILA and USMX from this latest round of negotiations,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. “We are hopeful they will be able to come to a final agreement on the remaining issues and ratify a new contract before the current contract expires.”

The two sides said they reached an “agreement in principle” on issues involving the introduction of new technology and automation, as well as on maintenance and repair of chassis with marine terminals and at off-pier facilities in the East and Gulf Coast ports. No details about the tentative agreements were released, but among ILA’s demands were that the contract protect jobs displaced by technological advances and that it also cover chassis pool operators.

“We had a productive session in Florida,” ILA president Harold J. Daggett and USMX chairman and chief executive officer James A. Capo said in a joint statement from Delray Beach. “We’re pleased that we were able to resolve some important issues and look forward to continuing bargaining to reach agreement on the remaining issues in the current negotiations.”

They also acknowledged the importance of East and Gulf Coast ports to global commerce and vowed to “reach an agreement without any disruption in the supply chain and operation of 14 ports.”

The two sides said they have successfully negotiated nine new master contracts since 1977 without any disruption in port operations. The current contract took effect in 2004 and was extended for two years in 2010.

Daggett, whose union represents 15,000 members, and Capo, whose association represents 24 container carrier members, including 10 of the largest worldwide, also directed management and ILA locals to begin bargaining on local port issues.

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