Northwest dockworkers begin crucial negotiations

Grain talks involve operations on the Columbia River

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PORTLAND — Dockworkers and grain terminal operators have begun contract negotiations with far higher stakes than in the disputes that caused chaos at the Port of Portland this summer, diverting ships and clogging cargo as far away as Idaho and India.

The grain talks involve Puget Sound terminals and operations on the Columbia River -- the nation's top wheat export outlet. The talks are being watched by farmers across the Northwest and Midwest.

If the negotiations fail to replace a contract that expires Sept. 30, wheat, soybeans and corn would back up across the U.S. grain belt, affecting tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in exports, The Oregonian reported.

The talks are the latest dispute over jobs and working conditions between employers and the 42,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which is striving to preserve and extend its jurisdiction as employers automate ports and try curbing labor expenses.

Neither the union nor the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents four companies employing the longshoremen, would talk.

But growers of wheat, corn and soybeans loaded on ships by longshoremen have voiced their anxiety. Northwest terminals will handle almost half of 33 million metric tons of U.S. wheat expected to be exported this year.

Customers unable to get U.S. wheat in the event of a disruption could become accustomed to buying grain elsewhere, said Blake Rowe, chief executive officer of the Oregon Wheat Growers' League and the Oregon Wheat Commission.

"It'd be a real shame to see them reach some impasse, because that hurts everybody including our customer relationships," said Rowe, who represents about 2,000 Oregon growers. "We'd damage our reputation for being secure, steady suppliers."

The current talks may not concern pay as much as working conditions because of concessions in the contract that Longview Longshore Local 21 signed Feb. 9 with EGT, or Export Grain Terminal.

A comparison of that contract and the current grain handlers' agreement reveals significant differences that save money and time for EGT.

The contract came after EGT shut out longshoremen, who picketed and stormed the port in Longview Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire intervened to reach agreement after a federal judge ruled the union was in contempt of court for violating a restraining order.