A group of shipping companies and a powerful dockworkers union clinched a tentative labor deal on Friday after nine months of negotiations, settling a dispute that disrupted the flow of cargo through 29 U.S. West Coast ports and snarled trans-Pacific maritime trade with Asia.
The settlement, confirmed in a joint statement by the two sides, was reached three days after U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday to broker a deal with the help of a federal mediator who had joined in the talks six weeks earlier.
The White House called the deal "a huge relief" for the economy, businesses and workers.
President Barack Obama urged the parties "to work together to clear out the backlogs and congestion in the West Coast ports as they finalize their agreement," the White House said in a statement.
The 20,000 dockworkers covered by the tentative five-year labor accord have been without a contract since July.
Tensions arising from the talks have played out since last fall in chronic cargo backups that have increasingly slowed freight traffic at the ports, which handle nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of the nation's imports from Asia.
More recently, the shipping companies have sharply curtailed operations at the marine terminals, suspending loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.
Perez said that as part of Friday's accord, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the shippers' bargaining agent, the Pacific Maritime Association, agreed to fully restore all port operations starting Saturday evening.
Perez was sent to California on Tuesday as an emissary for Obama, who had come under mounting political pressure to intervene in a conflict that by some estimates could have ended up costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
Almost summoned to Washington?
Perez said he told the union and management negotiators: "You have an obligation to resolve this matter quickly because too many people and businesses are suffering."
In a conference call with reporters following the agreement, Perez said he also had put leaders from both sides on notice that unless they came to terms swiftly they would be "summoned to Washington to continue their negotiations at the White House."