Standoff at grain terminals: workers on the job without contract

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PORTLAND, Ore. (PAI) -Last February, after a long and ferocious fight, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) made deep concessions in a first-time union contract with EGT, the stand-alone operator of a new grain export terminal in Longview, Wash. Now that company's unionized competitors-who negotiate together in the Pacific Northwest Grain Handler's Association (PNGHA) employer group-want similar employer-friendly terms in their contract with the union. All the grain terminals, which handle a huge share of overall U.S. grain trade, are owned by huge multinational corporations, many of them foreign-based.

So in September, when bargaining began between ILWU and PNGHA over a new Northwest Grainhandler's Agreement, PNGHA demanded more than 750 concessions, said ILWU spokesperson Jennifer Sargent in a press statement. It would have been like gutting the old contract and starting over.

The talks ended Dec. 12 with no agreement, and ILWU reported members voted to reject PNGHA's final offer Dec. 21 and 22 by 93.8 percent. At that point, three PNGHA employers announced they would impose their terms: Louis Dreyfus Commodities, a Dutch company that owns grain elevators in Seattle and Portland; Marubeni Corp., a Japanese company that owns Columbia Grain in Portland; and Mitsui & Co., a Japanese company that owns United Grain in Vancouver, Wash.

That provoked a strange kind of standoff. Beginning Dec. 27, union longshore workers at these terminals continued to show up for work, but without a union contract. They're free to strike at any time, but the employers are also free to replace them, and they're reportedly prepared to do so, with strikebreakers and nonunion tugboats reportedly at the ready.

"The men and women of the ILWU have been exporting grain from these Northwest elevators since 1934 and intend to continue working despite the substandard provisions of the employer's last offer," the ILWU said in a press release. "We are reviewing the multinational employers' letter and we're disappointed that they haven't accepted the union's invitation to continue negotiating to reach a fair agreement with local workers."

Meanwhile a fourth employer that was a part of PNGHA - TEMCO, a joint venture between CHS and Cargill - indicated to the union that it's comfortable with the previous agreement, and reportedly is maintaining the old contract terms at its terminals in Tacoma and Portland. TEMCO is no longer bargaining with PNGHA, PNGHA spokesperson Pat McCormick told the Labor Press.

Nearly 3,000 longshore workers are directly affected by the contract dispute, including members of ILWU Local 8 in Portland, Local 4 in Vancouver, Wash., Local 19 in Seattle and Local 23 in Tacoma. Members of those locals historically work under the Northwest Grainhandler's Agreement when they're dispatched to load grain ships, and under a separate contract with the Pacific Maritime Association when they're dispatched to load and unload container ships.

Neither side has said exactly what's preventing an agreement, but both say the dispute is about work rules, not wages or benefits. PNGHA said in a press statement that longshore workers earn $34 to $36 an hour under its offer, with an additional $30 an hour for benefits.

Workers also make $34 an hour under the EGT contract in Longview. But McCormick said other provisions in the EGT contract give it substantial cost advantages, jeopardizing competitors' market share.

"The reason this organization has bargained on behalf of a range of terminals is to avoid those kinds of competitive distortions," McCormick said.

The EGT contract permits mandatory 12-hour shifts, limits control room operations to managers, and gives management broad latitude to make new rules, change methods, and discipline employees, without requiring input from workers. It also circumvents the union hiring hall, allowing the company to make permanent hires and requiring the union to maintain a separate list of "pre-qualified" workers who can be hired and fired at management's discretion. And it provides stiff sanctions for strikes and other on-the-job protest actions.

EGT's contract also lets it use fewer employees to load ships, PNGHA said, and to use elevator employees to assist in ship-loading. It gives the company greater flexibility in start/stop times, permits pay to be calculated in smaller time increments and allows non-bargaining-unit personnel to perform certain work.

McCormick said PNGHA members would also be willing to accept the same terms EGT got in Longview-or those Kalama Export Company got in a subsequent contract.

Nearly half of U.S. wheat exports and more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through Columbia River and Puget Sound grain terminals.

Don McIntosh is Associate Editor, The Northwest Labor Press

Photo: July 25, 2011, Port of Longview. Teresa Albano/PW

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