Union says don't fence me out

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Surely it's not easy to stand outside your place of work, holding a picket sign and walking back and forth as someone else does your job on the other side of the fence.

But members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are doing just that, pacing beyond the gate of the massive United Grain Corp. grain export terminal at the Port of Vancouver. They've been there since Feb. 27, the day that they were locked out based on the company's allegation that a union member had vandalized United Grain property, a charge the union denies and that the Vancouver Police Department is investigating.

The men stand vigil 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They spend five-hour stints holding signs and pacing in front of the terminal gate, waving to sympathetic truckers who toot air horns as they pass.

The stare-down won't continue forever. Before the lockout, union members worked for about two months under a contract that they'd voted overwhelmingly to reject, and stories of work slowdowns — denied by the union — were common. It's unlikely that either side wants to return to such a volatile workplace.

Exporters and other waterfront employers using longshore workers want more flexibility in staffing, work hours and working conditions. And they want to be able to adopt new technologies that can eliminate jobs. Unions, naturally, want to protect jobs.

It's no surprise that the dispute has drawn far-flung attention. A quick Internet search on Friday uncovered plans for a rally that afternoon in San Francisco by the Bay Area Transport Workers Solidarity Committee in support of the locked-out ILWU workers in Vancouver.

It's easy to see how any settlement in Vancouver, or at several other terminals from Portland to Puget Sound where contract discussions are under way, will carry such importance elsewhere. After all, the present dispute has its origins in a contract settlement reached last year between the ILWU and the newly built EGT grain export terminal at the Port of Longview. The ILWU wrestled that contract away from another union after a bitter and occasionally violent battle that required an intervention by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire as a negotiator.

That deal is being portrayed by grain terminal operators as a model of flexibility in staffing and operations they'd like to emulate at their own terminals. But many rank-and-file union members were far from pleased with the contract their leaders had accepted. As a result, leaders face pressure from below not to accept the same deal again. They'd like something better that would boost the union as it heads toward next year's negotiations to renew the huge Pacific Maritime Association contract, affecting ports up and down the West Coast.

A union victory in the face of the EGT contract, mechanization, and competitive cost-cutting pressures won't be easy. And the longer that United Grain keeps operating, the tougher a victory will be for those standing on the other side of the fence.

Gordon Oliver: 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver, http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.