THE MASTER CONTRACT AGREEMENT reached in Washington last week between the International Longshoremen's Association and New York and Boston Shipping associations and the Carriers Container Council is not good enough, but it probably is as good as the industry can get.

Some long-needed reductions in longshore labor costs will be achieved. More is needed but, perhaps, after the new contract takes effect, experience will show that 1986 was indeed the year in which at least a start was made in lightening the industry's burden of paying for dock workers it doesn't need. The decision to end the JSP Agency Inc., which administers the special back-up fund to protect the ILA benefit programs that has about $100 million in its coffers, is welcomed.A contract must be fair to both sides, of course. Longshoremen who have achieved a better life for themselves and their children deserve consideration, in proportion to the amount of useful work they do. But they cannot expect waterfront employers to support a work force beyond the number actually required. "Work preservation" may be a legitimate union objective under U.S. law, but that does not repeal the laws of economics and efficiency.

At this juncture, with so much left to be done in putting together the whole contract package, including local port agreements, it is too early to form an opinion about the contract. Those who, like The Journal of Commerce, hoped for more basic changes in working arrangements on the waterfront, may feel disappointment. Those who, like The Journal of Commerce, hoped to see labor and management approach their problems in some continuing discussion, outside the combative, hammer-and-tongs atmosphere of contract bargaining, may feel disappointment. Meanwhile, those who have worked and continue to work on the contract agreement in this difficult year deserve thanks. Last week's agreement may be viewed as a beginning, not an end.

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