FRESH hopes have emerged of averting a strike at Teesport following lengthy talks between union officials and tugboat bosses.

Union negotiators for tug- boat crews want a three per cent basic pay increase extended to bonuses and other benefits, and current working practices to be maintained.

They are threatening to hold a strike ballot this month if their demands are not met.

However, a four-and-a-half hour meeting between both parties on Friday appears to have ended with hopes of a settlement higher that in recent weeks.

Stuart McNiven, managing director for employers Svitzer's Marine Limited, emerged from the talks in positive mood.

He said: "The meeting was conducted in a very positive manner indeed. Both the union and ourselves will set out a framework agreement for purposeful dialogue this week.

"Svitzer Marine and the union have expressed a desire to keep on talking in order to resolve outstanding issues and we will resume talks later today.

"We have been seeking negotiations with the union since the summer in order to reach an agreement on flexible working arrangements."

The dispute has been complicated by a debate over how much the tugboat men already earn and over Danish boatmen employed during a ten-week work-to-rule action on the Tees.

Svitzer Marine says the average boatman earns between £30,000 and £42,000, but the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) puts the basic figure at about £20,000.

Exact calculations are difficult because of the varying hours the six boat crews work.

The company have also denied recent claims by a union negotiator and David Walsh, Labour leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, that a collision involving one of the two Danish boats hitting a jetty may have been caused by the Danish crew not having an intimate know-ledge of the Tees.