LOS ANGELES – U.S. West Coast dockworkers and port operators have reached a tentative deal on a new labor contract, officials said late Friday, averting a shutdown that would have hit about half the country's trade.
The tentative five-year agreement, details of which were not immediately available, should free up operations at the ports, with business "restored to full capacity" beginning Saturday evening, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told a conference call.
Operations had slowed significantly since the labor contract expired in July at key ports for trade with Asia.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing 20,000 dockworkers, still must approve the deal with the Pacific Maritime Association, representing management for all 29 West Coast ports.
"Both parties had an obligation to resolve this matter quickly because too many innocent people and businesses were suffering." —@LaborSec— US Labor Department (@USDOL) February 21, 2015
The union's steering committee, however, was unanimous in its support.
"After more than nine months of negotiations, we are pleased to have reached an agreement that is good for workers and for the industry," PMA president James McKenna and ILWU president Bob McEllrath said in a joint statement.
"We are also pleased that our ports can now resume full operations."
Perez oversaw four days of negotiations in San Francisco between the two parties.
The @PortofLA is the nation's #1 port and so I'm extremely pleased that our work to achieve a tentative labor agreement has been realized.— Eric Garcetti (@ericgarcetti) February 21, 2015
"There were far too many victims across the country, and that's why the president sent me here" Perez said Friday.
The labor secretary had warned the two sides to strike a deal for a new dockworker contract now or see talks move to Washington, which would place more federal pressure on the two parties.
'Tend to Backlogs'
The agreement is "a huge relief for our economy -- particularly the countless American workers, farmers and businesses that have been affected by the dispute and those facing even greater disruption and costs with further delays," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
The president called on the two parties to tend to backlogs as they finalize the deal, Earnest added.
The National Retail Federation hailed the agreement as well, saying "it is now time for the parties to quickly ratify the deal and immediately focus on clearing out the crisis-level congestion and backlog at the ports."
No Repeats of 'Nightmare Scenario'
"As we welcome today's news, we must dedicate ourselves to finding a new way to ensure that this nightmare scenario is not repeated again," added the NRF, the world's largest retail federation.
Since October, the dockworkers have steadily slowed the processing of incoming and outgoing freight at ports that handle about half of the country's trade.
In response, the port owners have canceled shifts and had multiple-day lockouts to deny the longshoremen holiday and overtime pay.
The result has been a backup of billions of dollars' worth of cargo, with heavily laden container ships lined up outside ports from southern California to the border with Canada.
Pressure grew on both sides to compromise over what has been for weeks the key remaining issue, the arbitration system for labor disputes on the docks.
The ILWU sought more say on who can serve as an arbitrator, amid reports that the union claims the system has become more biased in favor of port management.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015