Dockworkers in Baltimore

Longshoremen transfer international cargo at the Port of Baltimore. (Jay Mallin/Bloomberg News / September 18, 2012)

The union representing 14,500 dockworkers on the East and Gulf coasts and the group representing shippers and port employers have averted a possible Oct. 1 strike by agreeing to extend the contract for 90 days.

The announcement came early Thursday afternoon after the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance had met with a federal mediator for two days at a New Jersey hotel.

George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said "progress was made on several important subjects," prompting both sides to agree to an extension through Dec. 29 — after the elections and the holiday season.

"In taking this significant step, the parties emphasized that they are doing so for the good of the country to avoid any interruption in interstate commerce," Cohen said in a statement.

Neither side returned calls for comment, and Cohen said there would be no more statements until negotiations were completed.

Talks on a master contract covering 14 ports, including Baltimore, broke off in late August, with leaders of both sides accusing each other of bargaining in bad faith. The contract, approved in 2004, covers nearly 1,200 longshoremen at the port of Baltimore.

The last coast-wide longshoremen's strike was 35 years ago.

Baltimore officials, who had been making strike contingency plans, applauded Cohen's announcement.

"The 90-day extension is a step in the right direction," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "We're pleased that the recent momentum at the port of Baltimore will continue uninterrupted during this period."

The dollar value of cargo passing through Baltimore's public and private marine terminals in 2011 was more than $51.4 billion, a record, and a 24 percent increase over 2010. During the first six months of 2012, the port's public terminals handled a record 4.83 million tons of general cargo, a 10 percent jump over the same period in 2011.

Helen Delich Bentley, a port commissioner and former chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, said the extension would serve as a cooling-off period.

"Strikes are no fun. Everybody loses. The mediator should be able to knock some sense into some people," she said.

Across the country, retailers breathed a sigh of relief, knowing the flow of merchandise would not be disrupted during the lead-up to the critical holiday period.

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, said the group's 550 member businesses were "thrilled" at the news. Association members account for about 85 percent of the $21.9 billion industry.

"This step will help to assure that the upcoming holidays will be happy for families and kids across the country," Keithley said.

Other businesses were grateful for the reprieve as well.

"This is great news for the U.S. economy and all of us that rely on ocean transportation," said Kraig Doub, global logistics engineer for Indianapolis-based Allison Transmission Inc. "I am relieved to see that both parties are concerned about the greater good."

The National Retail Federation said the extension signals that both sides are serious about reaching a deal but cautioned against optimism. "Until a final contract is ratified, America's retail community will remain concerned," said Jonathan Gold, a federation vice president.

Cohen said negotiations on the master agreement would be conducted during the same time frame as negotiations for local agreements at each port.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com