LOS ANGELES (AP) - Negotiators trying to reach a new contract covering workers at West Coast sea ports, which handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually, have resolved a key dispute in their difficult talks, an association representing employers said Monday.

LOS ANGELES (AP) Negotiators trying to reach a new contract covering workers at West Coast sea ports, which handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually, have resolved a key dispute in their difficult talks, an association representing employers said Monday.

Dockworkers continued to move containers after the contract expired in July, but in the fall disputes at the bargaining table spilled into the workplace and cargo has struggled to cross ports that account for about one-quarter of the nation's international trade.

Agricultural exporters say they can't get perishables to market, while importers of furniture and other consumer products say their goods are sitting on the docks.

The new agreement addresses neither wages nor pensions, but what would seem an ancillary issue who maintains and repairs the truck beds used to haul containers of cargo from dockside yards to distribution warehouses. Chassis repair became a big stumbling block, however, because automation at seaports could take jobs and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union wants to find new members where it can.

"This has been a major topic of conversation for a few weeks and with this tentative agreement, the hope is we can make progress toward reaching a final contract," Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, said Monday. The association represents companies that own huge ocean-going ships and operate terminals where workers load or unload cargo.

While the union's rank-and-file would still need to approve the deal as part of a final contract package, the fact that their negotiators approved it suggests employers will allow union jurisdiction over the jobs.

A spokesman for the union, which represents workers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle, had no comment.

The agreement was reached during weekend bargaining overseen by a federal mediator, who intervened earlier this month after both sides asked for help. It was the first publicly announced agreement on an issue since the summer, when the two sides said they had agreed on health benefits.

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Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .