WASHINGTON – The International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance Ltd. agreed to extend their contract an additional 30 days until midnight, Jan. 28, according to news reports. The contract covers more than 15,000 dockworkers at 14 Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast ports.

The groups also settled one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations — container royalty fees on cargo. The fees supplement dockworker wages. Employers sought to cap the fees, while dockworkers opposed the change.

George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), issued statement announcing the breakthrough in negotiations. FMCS is a government agency that provides mediation and conflict resolution services to industry, government agencies and communities.

“Given that negotiations will be continuing and consistent with the agency’s commitment of confidentiality to the parties, FMCS shall not disclose the substance of the container royalty payment agreement,” he said. “What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement. While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming 30-day extension period.”

Cohen said both parties would continue to negotiate all outstanding Master Agreement issues, which include those relating to New York and New Jersey. FMCS will set the negotiation schedule after consulting the parties.

The ILA and the USMX have been in negotiations on a new six-year contract since March. The last contract expired in September, but both sides agreed to a 90-day extension that was set to expire Dec. 29. At least 14 seaports would have been affected by strikes that could have begun on Dec. 30. Economists estimated that a 10-day lockout of west coast ports in 2002 cost the US economy $1 billion for each day of the lockout.