Northwest grain terminal managers prepare for epic showdown with longshoremen

Maersk global

Oregonian. Sept 25:

Northwest grain terminal managers prepare for epic showdown with longshoremen

With a contract expiring in five days, managers of Northwest grain terminals are preparing for a showdown with longshoremen that could far eclipse this summer’s turmoil at the Port of Portland.

Half of the nation’s wheat exports flow through Portland and Puget Sound ports. To keep shipments moving, managers of four Portland-area terminals and two near Seattle are hiring security forces and making arrangements with nonunion labor in anticipation of locking out striking longshoremen, according to the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association and other sources.

“I’d anticipate nothing will move with union workers,” if negotiators fail to agree, said Jim Townley, the association’s executive director.

Longshoremen won’t talk, but a leaked memo reveals dissension in their ranks.

Neither side will say how the talks are going, but with the current contract expiring Sunday, pressure is building. Even so, judging by the issues, the two sides could be far apart.

Terminal operators want to model the next contract on one struck earlier this year at Export Grain Terminal in Longview, Wash., that cut costs and boosted efficiency at the expense of longshoremen’s working conditions. That agreement came only after weeks of protests in which  demonstrators stormed the terminal, assaulted a guard, damaged rail cars and spilled grain.

Terminal managers hope to avoid that kind of violence this time but say they need equivalent working conditions to stay competitive with EGT and other terminals. They’re also taking steps to move ahead without the longshoremen, determined to keep wheat, corn and soybeans moving, according to the steamship association.

But some vocal members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are furious over the concessions at EGT and unlikely to fall in line.

A June memo signed by 10 current and retired longshoremen sharply criticizes the EGT contract and challenges ILWU President Robert McEllrath and Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet.

The union dissidents object to allowing EGT to hire longshoremen directly — bypassing the union hiring hall that traditionally dispatches workers — and to fire any worker without cause. They also criticize the EGT contract for allowing employers to bring in non-union workers — scabs, in union terms — when work stops during disagreements between labor and management. And they complain that members of Longview Local 21 weren’t allowed to vote on the contract.

“It heads our union in the wrong direction at the wrong time,” says the statement, leaked this month, “caving in to employer intimidation and greed just before we begin the Northwest Grain Handlers’ contract negotiations.”

Farmers across the Northwest and Midwest, meanwhile, nervously await the outcome of the talks, which involve terminals that handle about a quarter of U.S. grain exports, including wheat, corn and soybeans. With the talks coming near the peak of the harvest season, a stoppage would back up grain at farms and county elevators extending to the Dakotas and beyond.

About 2,300 longshoremen in four locals are eligible to work at the six terminals, making an average $98,000 a year, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, an organization that represents West Coast employers but not the grain handlers.

Across the bargaining table from leaders of the ILWU, a powerful West Coast union with more than 42,000 members,  sit representatives of Columbia Grain International Inc., Temco, Louis Dreyfus Commodities Inc. and United Grain Corp.

In Portland, Columbia Grain’s terminal is in the Rivergate Industrial Park at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The Louis Dreyfus terminal sits north of the Steel Bridge on the Willamette’s east bank. Temco’s terminal is between the Fremont and Broadway bridges on the east side of the Willamette. In Vancouver, the United Grain terminal is on the Columbia River west of downtown.

Those terminals are entirely separate from the Port of Portland’s Terminal 6, a North Portland cargo hub where a dispute between longshoremen and electricians over work on refrigerated containers clogged cargo this summer.

Terminal 6 handles shipping containers, not grain, and longshoremen are hired there by the Port’s terminal operator, ICTSI Oregon Inc., not the grain handlers. In that case, the National Labor Relations Board awarded the disputed jobs to the electricians after months of turmoil in which cargo ships bypassed Portland. Now, lawyers for the labor board are asking a federal judge to rule the longshore union in contempt of court for allegedly violating an injunction.

If the separate grain talks fail to produce a contract, river pilots plan to continue steering massive vessels in and out of port as long as their own safety, and that of the public, isn’t threatened. Coast Guard officials plan to ensure river safety and to keep commerce flowing.

“If there are indications that protests may occur on the water, the Coast Guard will be on the water to ensure safety of all users of the navigable waterway,” public affairs Petty Officer Nathan Littlejohn wrote in an email responding to questions.

Sgt. Peter Simpson, Portland Police Bureau spokesman, said commanders have discussed the strike potential with Port of Portland officials, who had no comment.

“My understanding is that private security and Port police will be the lead public safety on strike-related issues unless they spill into the streets,” Simpson said. Police have no firm plans to be out in force, he said, unless there are calls for service.

A longshore union spokewoman did not respond to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday. Representatives of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents the terminals, also had no comment on the talks. But Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the association, said managers’ strong preference is to reach agreement.

“No final decision has been made on what we intend to do if we are unable to reach agreement by the Sept. 30 expiration date,” McCormick said via email. “The Grain Handlers Association can confirm that a security firm has been retained, which is part of a standard contingency plan to prepare for any eventuality.”

Union Pacific railroad’s chief spokesman said his company was monitoring the situation closely. A spokesman for BNSF Railway could not be reached.

At the Port of Vancouver, which handles about 16 percent of the nation’s grain exports, spokeswoman Katie Odem said managers’ first priority is to ensure safety for staff, tenants, customers and dockworkers.

“Our second priority is to make sure our property is protected,” Odem said. “And our third priority is to keep the port open for business.”

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