UPDATE: Showdown looms in grain export dispute

Terminal operators give union until Dec. 24 to accept, reject offer

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

Three of four operators of grain export terminals in the Pacific Northwest have given union dockworkers until noon Christmas Eve to say whether or not they accept the operators’ final contract offer. The operators also said they don’t see any value in further negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“Given the parties’ respective positions, we do not believe additional meetings would be fruitful,” Glen McClendon, attorney for the operators, wrote to a top union leader in a Dec. 17 letter obtained by The Columbian.

McClendon’s letter is the latest twist in a high-profile labor-contract dispute that, if no resolution is reached, threatens to slow or halt the shipment of billions of dollars worth of agricultural products.

McClendon’s letter also is noteworthy because it lists just three — not all four — of the grain terminal operators as having rejected the union’s latest contract offer. That suggests a member of the operators’ group — the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — may not agree with the direction the employers’ group is taking in its dealings with the union.

‘Union is disappointed’

McClendon’s letter went to Leal Sundet, an ILWU coast committeeman who heads the union’s negotiating team. In the letter, McClendon also informs Sundet that the three grain terminal operators, including United Grain Corp. — a tenant of the Port of Vancouver — have rejected the union’s most recent contract proposal, submitted on Dec. 12.

Noting the union is slated to vote on the operators’ “last, best and final contract offer” — presented to the ILWU on Nov. 16 — on Friday and Saturday, McClendon asks Sundet to notify him no later than noon on Christmas Eve of the outcome of that vote.

The union negotiating team is unanimously recommending that members of longshore union locals — which include ILWU Local No. 4 in Vancouver, home to 203 longshore workers — vote “no,’ according to a statement issued by Sundet.

“The union is disappointed that the grain merchants apparently have rejected a very fair offer that equalizes the playing field on all points that matter,” Sundet said. “Clearly the foreign-based grain merchants intend to risk the U.S. export market to try to break the union.”

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, said Tuesday he hasn’t seen McClendon’s letter. After being notified of its content, McCormick said it says basically the same thing the association has said before and in its most recent statement issued Monday: that its last, best and final contract offer stands.

Employer dissension?

Four operators of grain export terminals in the Pacific Northwest have long been on the same page in saying they want more employer-friendly work rules and that they don’t like the counteroffers made by union dockworkers.

However, that solidarity may be showing cracks, as evidenced by the omission of one of the four grain-terminal operators from McClendon’s letter — and from the Grain Handlers Association’s statement Monday — that rejected the ILWU’s most recent offer.

Columbia Grain, Louis Dreyfus Commodities and United Grain Corp. all said the union’s offer “did not meet their needs because it would continue to leave them at a competitive disadvantage” to terminal operators in Longview and Kalama, which hammered out separate, more employer-friendly contracts with the ILWU.

Left out of that Grain Handlers Association statement, however, was the fourth terminal operator — TEMCO — a joint venture of Cargill and CHS Inc. that runs grain-export facilities in Portland and Tacoma.

And that raised a question: Has TEMCO split from the group?

McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, declined Tuesday to comment on that matter. “I don’t have anymore information beyond what’s in the statement,” he said. “I don’t have any way to confirm what the circumstances are.”

‘Too many concessions’

The association and the ILWU are at odds over the terms of a new labor contract. The current one expired at the end of September.

The association represents four operators of six terminals in Puget Sound and along the Columbia River: LD Commodities in Seattle and Portland; TEMCO in Portland and Tacoma; Columbia Grain in Portland; and United Grain Corp. in Vancouver.

Pay and benefits have not been the holdup during negotiations. Rather, the terminal operators want to implement workplace rules they consider more advantageous.

The union has said the terminal operators are pushing for too many concessions. In his letter to Sundet, McClendon wrote that when Sundet “presented the (union’s) proposal, you stated that while you may be able to tweak it for style or clarification, you had no more substantive movement.”

“We appreciate your candor and took your comment seriously,” McClendon wrote. He went on: “Unfortunately, the (union’s) proposal does not” meet the needs of the employers — Columbia Grain, United Grain and Louis Dreyfus.

The terminal operators could lock out dockworkers at any time. The union has said it’s prepared to strike and to stage protests by boat and on land.


Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com