The Washington Post and the union that represents nearly 1,500 newsroom and commercial employees have tentatively agreed to a new three-year contract, ending nearly six months of rocky negotiations and two "byline strikes" during which protesting journalists left their names off their work in the paper.

The deal was worked out Tuesday afternoon and must be ratified by members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. It settles what had been one of the chief sources of disagreement between the two sides -- the ability for Guild members to drop out of the union at any time.

The Post pushed for union members to be able to leave the Guild whenever they want, saying employees with economic hardships who want to stop paying union dues -- 1.4 percent of annual gross wages -- can do so only during a single 30-day period each year.

The Guild wanted to keep the window, saying it helps the union better control its finances. Union membership is optional for newsroom and commercial employees.

The compromise keeps the annual 30-day window but allows for up to 10 Guild members to drop out anytime during the course of a year. Further, Guild members can now cease automatic deduction of dues from their paychecks. This means that if members want to stop the deductions but remain in the Guild, they must pay the union directly.

"We are pleased that a deal has been reached, and we hope that the Guild's membership will ratify the new contract at their meeting next week," said Post publisher and chief executive Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. "This tentative contract is a balanced agreement, as good as possible in today's economic environment."

The Guild's bargaining committee will recommend that members ratify the contract at their Nov. 7 meeting.

"If you look at what [the Metro section] has been doing over the last few weeks on the sniper and what every other section does every day, the economic settlement does not reflect what workers at The Post deserve," said Rick Weiss, Guild unit co-chairman and a science reporter on The Post's National staff. "But I do think it's the best economic package we're going to get out of The Post in the current economic and political climate."

The deal leaves essentially unchanged the salary agreement proposed by The Post: Guild-covered employees get a $1,350 lump-sum payment in the first year of the contract and raises averaging $21 per week in the second and third years.

According to the Guild, the average salary of Post newsroom employees, such as reporters, columnists, photographers, artists and critics, is $80,379 per year, while the average salary in commercial jobs -- which include sales representatives, graphic artists and information technology staffers -- is $41,555.