Mediator joins talks between dockworkers, grain shippers

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Add another voice to the ongoing talks aimed at reaching a new labor agreement between union dockworkers and grain shippers.

A federal mediator has joined negotiations this week in Portland between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and operators of grain export terminals along the Columbia River and the Puget Sound.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a consortium of six Northwest grain shippers -- including United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver -- said Tuesday that the association, looking to move the talks forward, proposed bringing in a mediator. The ILWU agreed, McCormick said.

The two parties have been negotiating to replace a contract that expired at the end of September.

Failure to reach an agreement and avoid a lockout could threaten the flow of wheat, soybeans and corn to markets. More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports, including nearly half the nation's wheat exports, move through Columbia River and Puget Sound grain terminals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

McCormick said having a mediator "puts a third-party into the discussion" in hopes of moving the talks to a resolution. He said he didn't know the identity of the federal mediator.

McCormick confirmed that United Grain Corp. has increased security personnel at its Vancouver port site, which is "part of contingency preparations in a situation like this. It isn't unique to United Grain that they're making such preparations."

Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the port, said the company has "always had security in place on its leasehold" but that the port understands the company has increased its security personnel.

Wagner said the port, which is not part of the negotiations, hopes the situation is resolved in a positive manner. The port has three top priorities, she said: safety for everyone involved; protection of property; and to keep the port open for business.

Intensifying the pressure on negotiators to reach a new agreement 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. In Longview, for example, the concessions enable Export Grain Terminal to seek damages for work stoppages.

The Grain Handlers Association has indicated it would like to broaden those workplace rules to include the six Puget Sound and Columbia River terminals it represents.

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