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Port strike averted in eastern US, for now. Is labor starting to claw back?

Eastern port operators and longshoremen agreed Friday on a royalties package, extending contract negotiations 30 days. The strike threat at ports signals that labor is ready to fight for its life, experts say.

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A truck driver watches as a freight container is lowered onto a tractor trailer by a container crane at the Port of Boston in December.

Steven Senne/AP/File

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Port operators and Eastern longshoremen agreed Friday to avoid a potentially crippling strike set for Sunday at 14 major US ports, at least for now. Negotiators refused to release details of the deal, but labor experts suggest the daring strike threat by dockworkers is indicative of a broader gambit by a besieged labor movement to claw back some power amid a strengthening US economy.

The agreement over so-called “container royalties” worth up to $15,000 a year for an average longshoreman does not fully resolve the dispute, but is part of a 30-day contract negotiation extension agreed upon by the International Longshoremen’s Association and the US Maritime Alliance, which represents shipping companies and ports.

“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” said George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

While federal mediators refused to disclose the agreement and said “significant issues remain in contention,” Mr. Cohen said what he can report “is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall … agreement.”

With Washington frantically trying to stave off a national “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic budget cuts, the already wobbling US economy likely would have teetered further if the 14,500 longshoremen had walked off docks from New York to Houston on Sunday. The workers handle 40 percent of US container traffic – about 100 million tons a year – and a strike could have cost $1 billion a day by blocking what is, in effect, the lifeblood of the US marketplace.

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