The months-long brinkmanship between Pacific Northwest grain terminal operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union appears to be over — for now.
Owners of four terminals, including United Grain Corp. in Vancouver, say they’ll implement a new contract Thursday morning, and a union spokeswoman says Longshore workers will show up for work even though they voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract. But it remains unclear as to whether this is the final act in the long-running dispute that affects a large chunk of the nation’s exports of grains and other agricultural commodities to Asia.
Before Wednesday’s sudden turn of events, a Christmas season showdown appeared imminent when the union rejected the grain terminal operator’s “last, final, and best” contract offer, which nearly 94 percent of voting members opposed. On Wednesday afternoon, representatives of three terminal owners declared by email that they would implement the contract at 6 a.m. today, despite the union rejection. Those owners operate Columbia Grain in Portland and Louis Dreyfus Commodities elevators in Portland and Seattle as well as United Grain Corp. in Vancouver.
The owners, who had sought contract terms similar to those already in place at the EGT terminal in Longview and Kalama Export in Kalama, seemed braced for a strike. They said in a statement that they were not initiating a lockout and invited Longshore union members to work under the terms of the new contract.
Yet their email to the news media included a backgrounder on legal issues surrounding strikes and lockouts. They also attached a letter from attorney Glen McClendon of the Portland-based Lindsay, Hart law firm to ILWU coast committeeman Leal A. Sundet, head of the union negotiating team. Its tone was not optimistic.
“While these Employers are extremely disappointed that the parties have been unable to resolve their differences, especially given that the Employers’ proposal from the beginning has been designed to level the playing field with EGT and Kalama Export, they remain hopeful that a mutually agreeable contract will be reached at some future date,” McClendon wrote. He went on to say that employers reserve the right to revise their proposal “in the event that the Union decides to engage in economic activity against the Employers or engages in other behavior which is designed to negatively impact the Employers’ operations or cost structure.”
Just 23 minutes later, the ILWU issued a brief response, grudgingly accepting the new contract, at least for now. “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,” wrote Jennifer Sargent, ILWU coast Longshore division spokeswoman. “We are reviewing the multinational employer’s 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.”
Much remains unclear. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the grain export terminal owners, said the owners are unwilling to say how many Longshore members work at the four affected terminals. Sargent says the numbers vary widely from day to day, but estimated that the terminals typically employ hundreds of workers. Some 3,000 Longshore union members were eligible to vote on the contract offer.
Also, the grain operators’ statement made no mention of a fourth member of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association that had been part of earlier negotiations: Temco, a joint venture of Cargill and CHS Inc., which operates grain elevators in Portland and Tacoma. Sargent said she had no update on contract issues involving Temco.
While the terminal owners have repeatedly made note of their wage proposal — the contract would increase the hourly wage to a range of $34 to $36 per hour, with benefits worth another $30 per hour, according to the owners — both sides agree that wages have not been a sticking point. Rather, the owners said they want a contract that gives them more management flexibility and more opportunities to increase efficiencies. The union has said the terminal operators are pushing for too many concessions: By its count the contract includes 750 changes that the union has described as concessions.
The last contract expired on Sept. 30. In the run-up to Wednesday’s breakthrough, both sides had prepared for tense showdowns. The union had said it was prepared to strike and to stage protests by boat and on land. The Coast Guard had established a safety zone around all inbound and outbound grain-shipment vessels at the Columbia Grain and United Grain terminals.
The terminal owners’ association had brought tugboats operated by non-union personnel to the Columbia River from California to escort grain vessels to the terminals in the event of a strike, and replacement workers were at the ready if union workers walked off the job or were shut out of the grain terminals.
But instead it’s business as usual but under a new contract, at least for now.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.