Grain handlers, dockworkers still talking

Owners say they'll respond today to longshoremen's comments about 'final offer'

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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With a midnight deadline looming for a possible lockout at six grain export terminals — including United Grain Corp.'s facility at the Port of Vancouver — terminal owners said Wednesday they'll take more time to respond to union dockworkers' request for further negotiations.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has said talks are not at an impasse, and that the earliest union members could vote on an offer would be Dec. 21 and 22.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — a consortium of six Northwest grain shippers, including United Grain Corp. — said the group will respond today "to comments received from representatives of ILWU about the group's last, best and final offer."

The owners had made a "last, best and final" offer to the union with a midnight deadline Wednesday. They could have imposed that contract and locked out the dockworkers, who are also prepared to strike and to stage protests by boat and on land.

A strike or lockout would threaten the flow of agricultural products to international markets. The terminals export $10 billion of wheat, corn, and soybeans each year. They handle about 25 percent of U.S. grain exports.

Salary and benefits have not been the holdup during talks. Rather, the owners want to implement workplace rules they consider more advantageous.

The contract offer, a copy of which was leaked to The Oregonian newspaper, contains numerous employer-friendly concessions, including letting employers go to court to end work stoppages immediately and allowing supervisors to perform work during health-and-safety disputes, or if the union hiring hall can't supply enough qualified grain handlers.

Concessions would also make it easier for terminal operators to hire non-union workers. The contract offer also says the "employer shall have the right to introduce new methods of operation without interference from the union."

Brad Clark, president of the ILWU Local No. 4 in Vancouver — which has 203 longshore workers — said "our interest is to continue to go to work."

He said the union has requested additional dates for further negotiations and that "our intention has been to get an agreement."

However, he said, the grain terminal owners are pushing for too many concessions from the union, noting the owners are proposing 757 changes to the contract compared with the 17 proffered by the longshore workers.

Clark said the 80-year-old contract is "mature," and that the terminal owners are pressing to reduce it to an "infant agreement."

Recently, both parties agreed to bring in a federal mediator in hopes of moving the talks forward.

Katie Odem, a spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said the port is focused on protecting property, ensuring people's safety and keeping the port open for business. That includes making sure neutral parties, including other tenants and customers, "can still do business," Odem said. "That's really important to us."

Terminal operators have prepared for a lockout or strike, including bringing in security

personnel. Gettier, a Wilmington, Del., company whose services include protection of replacement workers and videotaping picket line activities, has visited the premises of United Grain Corp. and other sites, sources have confirmed to The Columbian.

Influencing the talks between the terminal owners and the union are separate contracts hammered out between employers and union members at shipping terminals in Longview and Kalama.

In both of those cases, the new contracts include concessions that favor the employers over laborers. In Longview, for example, the concessions enable Export Grain Terminal (EGT) to seek damages for work stoppages.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association wants those same employer-friendly rules for the grain shippers it represents at 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.

Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire acted as a mediator to help resolve the dispute between longshoremen and EGT.

Cory Curtis, the governor's communications director, said Gregoire has not gotten involved in the conflict between the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association and the ILWU, and that she hasn't been asked to intervene.

"Certainly, we are paying attention to it," he said, and are "concerned about the outcome that it has for what moves in and out of those terminals."

A spokesman for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said Wednesday the governor's office is monitoring the situation.

The labor dispute between the Grain Handlers Association and the union is the third to hit the Port of Portland since summer. On Saturday, port officials and union leaders who represent its marine terminal security guards narrowly averted a strike that could have effectively shut down three terminals. Gov. Kitzhaber stepped into that conflict, seeking a resolution.

The Associated Press and Columbian Business Editor Gordon Oliver contributed to this report.