A partial settlement has been reached more than five years after about 1,400 of New York harbor's unionized tug and barge workers were replaced during one of the 1980s' most contentious strikes.

Under the agreement, workers at Bouchard Transportation Co., one of the largest tug and barge operators in the East Coast's largest port, will be reinstated and will receive $4.7 million in back pay."We're sending out letters to all the men" this week telling them they can come back to work if they want, said Morton S. Bouchard III, president of Bouchard.

"Maybe we're making some headway after five years," said a weary, but relived Albert Cornette, president of Local 333 of the United Marine Division of the International Longshoremen's Association. "It was a effort where a group of people got together and said, 'Enough is enough.' "

The union hopes to also reach settlements with five other companies where more than 1,000 of its members once held jobs. The Local 333 members have been out of work since Feb. 16, 1988, despite a November 1988 federal judge's order reinstating them. Litigation over that order has been slowly winding through the courts ever since.

"It's a very long time," said Daniel Engelstein, an attorney with the Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard law firm, which represents Local 333.

The long, bitter strike exacted a harsh toll on the workers, leading to lost homes, suicides and divorces, said Mr. Cornette. "At the time of the strike, the employers were demanding a 65 percent reduction in labor costs," he said. "They (the membership) were willing to give back 25 percent," but 65 percent was too much, he said.

The ensuing strike was marred by violence as employers called workers up

from the U.S. Gulf to replace union members. Shootings and firebombings followed, including one incident where a firebomb was dropped 150 feet onto a tug from the Queensboro Bridge over the East River.

Despite the violence, the strike had little effect on traffic in the harbor.

Under the Bouchard settlement, 161 workers are eligible for reinstatement and back pay. Those that come back will displace the jobs of their non-union replacements. Under a three-year contract that includes wage and work rule concessions, all new employees will be hired from the Local 333 hiring hall.

Neither side was willing to give further terms of the contract Thursday.

For both unions and employers nationwide, the case - and the long time it took to settle - illustrate both the strength of U.S. labor law and the strength of delaying tactics in avoiding the law's bite, labor experts said.

"The law sometimes works, it just takes a long time," said Greg Tarpinian, senior research economist at the Labor Research Association in New York. "Employers can appeal and appeal until many of the workers are no longer alive."

The eventual success by the workers in gaining back pay and reinstatement in the Bouchard case, as opposed to some other high-profile labor disputes like the federal air traffic controllers strike, is due to legal differences in the cases, experts said.

With federal employers legally barred from striking, the law was on the employer's side in the controllers' situation. In New York harbor, however, the employers engaged in tactics the National Labor Relations Board contended violated its rules.

"Where open union-busting occurs," employees can prevail in the courts, said Mr. Tarpinian.

Mr. Bouchard, however, said his company's intention was never to bust the union. "The whole intent by Bouchard was to get a fair contract we can live with. We got that," he said. "Once we got that we were always going to settle."

"I think we had a just cause to go on strike," said Mr. Cornette.