Owners of grain terminals set deadline

Union dockworkers given until Dec. 8 to accept contract

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Operators of six grain export terminals — including United Grain Corp.'s facility at the Port of Vancouver — struck an aggressive tone Thursday in giving union dockworkers until Dec. 8 to accept their "last and final offer."

In a statement emailed to The Columbian by Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, the group said it's offering the International Longshore and Warehouse Union increases in "an already generous wage and benefit package" in exchange for changes in work rules similar to what the ILWU agreed to in separate contracts hammered out previously between employers and members at shipping terminals in Longview and Kalama.

The group said "it's puzzling why the ILWU won't agree to apply the same terms to" the six Columbia River and Puget Sound grain-terminal operators it represents. The group also criticized the union for using what it says is "inflammatory language" in media reports of the dispute, including "erroneously" portraying the group's offer "as a rejection of the union's safety code."

The ILWU fired back in a statement of its own issued by Jennifer Sargent, a union spokeswoman, who said "there are many factual errors in the grain monopolies' statement. Clearly, these multinational corporations are more interested in misrepresenting local workers than in negotiating a fair contract with them."

Sargent went on: "These grain monopolies are major recipients of American taxpayer subsidies and need to care about our regional economy and not just their own astronomical profits."

The groups' dueling statements Thursday were the latest salvos fired in a high-profile dispute that has intensified in recent weeks and threatened to slow or halt the shipment of billions of dollars worth of agricultural products. The Grain Handlers Association — a consortium of six Northwest grain shippers, including United Grain Corp. — and the ILWU are at odds over the terms of a new labor contract. The current one expired at the end of September.

In its statement, the Grain Handlers Association said the separate labor contracts secured in Longview and Kalama have given operators at those sites "a clear competitive advantage" over the six Columbia River and Puget Sound grain-terminal operators the association represents. The association said its primary goal in reaching a new agreement with the ILWU is "leveling the competitive playing field."

The union has said the terminal operators are pushing for too many concessions in an 80-year-old contract. It has also said that talks are not at an impasse, and that the earliest union members could vote on an offer would be Dec. 21 and 22.

Meanwhile, the governors of Washington and Oregon are monitoring the situation. Tim Raphael, a spokesman for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, said Kitzhaber is in contact with Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's office. "There is too much at stake with the region's fragile economic recovery to let this continue to escalate into either a lockout or a strike," Raphael said in an email to The Columbian.

The grain-terminal 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.

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

Their contract offer 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."

The Grain Handlers Association proposes the work-rule changes 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.

The Northwest is not alone in its waterfront labor tensions.

Striking clerical workers and Longshoremen in Los Angeles have shut down much of the nation's two largest container ports, leaving berthed vessels waiting to be unloaded and other ships anchored offshore. Seven of the eight terminals at the Port of Los Angeles are closed, Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the city-owned facility, said yesterday. At the adjacent Port of Long Beach, three of six are closed, according to its website.

Bloomberg News contributed to this story.