Contract negotiations continue smoothly between shippers and the union representing West Coast dockworkers, with both sides announcing Thursday that an agreement should be reached before the current labor pact expires July 1, the Daily Breeze reports.

Representatives from the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union launched formal negotiations March 17 to hammer out a three-year contract aimed at improving employee safety and maintaining port jobs for some 26,000 unionized longshore workers, marine clerks and foremen in California, Oregon and Washington.

About 20,000 of the unionized employees work at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"At this point, we haven't run into any fundamental stumbling blocks," said Craig Merrilees, an ILWU spokesman.

"There's plenty of time left, and I'm sure there will be some challenges as days grow shorter and the issues get thornier," Merrilees said. "We're all committed to reaching a fair agreement by July 1 and sticking to that deadline."

The ILWU and the PMA have said they hope to avoid a repeat of the bitter 2002 labor dispute that eventually led to a 10-day lockout and shutdown of the ports, which ended when President Bush imposed the Taft-Hartley Act ordering unions back to work.

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