By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - Longshoremen in New York and New Jersey, who handle shipments at the largest port on the U.S. East Coast, have reached a tentative six-year labor agreement with the New York Shippers Association, both sides said on Thursday.
The negotiations ended with a deal just before a Friday deadline. A spokesman for the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) confirmed there was a deal with port terminal operators and shippers, but declined to provide details.
Witnesses told Reuters that the mediation appeared tense, with screaming and, at one point, talk of a potential walk-out.
America's ports have been the scene of a series of increasingly heated struggles between port workers and their employers on the East, West and Gulf coasts in recent months centering on pay, workplace efficiency and automation.
About 4,500 longshoremen and women work at the Port of New York and New Jersey, or roughly a third of all longshoremen on the East Coast. The port handles about 3 million containers annually, mostly through three main terminals in New Jersey.
The deal on Thursday was significant because it is part of larger talks between the ILA, which represents 14,500 dock workers at 15 ports on the East and Gulf coasts, and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) of shippers, terminal operators and port authorities.
With a strike looming, the two sides agreed a tentative deal on February 1 for a new master contract. That contract will go before a union committee for approval next week in Florida and then move to members to ratify.
But the master contract is also contingent on the ability of workers to reach additional agreements for individual ports, where work rules and other local issues still have to be hammered out. Those talks are ongoing.
New York Shipping would not provide details, but said a few issues still needed "refinement" and would be discussed next week at the meeting in Florida.
"I'm am very pleased with the tentative agreement because it will provide the tools and the means to address many of the issues that will make our port more efficient and productive," New York Shipping Association President Joseph Curto said in a statement.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Additional reporting by Edith Honan. Editing by Andre Grenon)