Both sides in labor dispute call negotiations 'fruitful'

Union dockworkers, grain terminal owners at odds for more than a year

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Union dockworkers and grain-terminal owners in the Northwest, who've sparred for more than a year over terms of a new labor contract, said Wednesday that renewed negotiations this week have been fruitful.

In a statement issued to The Columbian, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said the negotiations held on Oct. 21 and 22 "were positive and productive."

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver — said Sargent's comments are "consistent" with his understanding of how the restarted talks are going.

Neither party will comment on the specifics of their new and productive negotiations. But both are expected to schedule additional discussions in the weeks ahead. Wednesday's news suggests the potential for a resolution of a long-running and bitter conflict.

Two essential arguments frame the dispute: To boost their competitiveness, the grain handlers say, they want a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the ILWU signed in February 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. The union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain in Portland and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle — aim to break the union and hurt workers.

The quarrel intensified when United Grain and Columbia Grain locked out Longshore workers in February and May, respectively. The fallout from the lockout includes ongoing pickets by the ILWU, the use of replacement workers at United Grain, Vancouver police responses to reported incidents, and charges and countercharges filed by the two sides with the National Labor Relations Board.

The conflict briefly prompted state grain inspectors, worried about their security, to balk at conducting their work at United Grain. At one point, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee weighed in, calling on the Longshore union and the companies to re-establish negotiations. And Eastern Washington grain growers expressed worry the dispute would worsen, hobbling their ability to move agricultural products to overseas markets.

At the Port of Vancouver alone, roughly 3.2 million metric tons of grain — about 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports — moves through on its way to overseas markets.

The ILWU and the Grain Handlers Association agreed to this week's revived negotiations after the two parties talked on Oct. 3. The new round of conversations is the first since the Longshore union and the grain handlers met in late March in Vancouver. Those talks quickly broke off.

Initially, another grain terminal owner, Temco, negotiated with the ILWU as a member of the Grain Handlers Association. But Temco — a U.S.-based operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama — later decided to negotiate directly with union dockworkers.

Temco, a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and CHS Inc., subsequently signed a temporary contract with the Longshore union in March. United Grain officials have said that temporary contract includes a contingency clause allowing it to be changed to include beneficial changes the union may accept in a contract with the remaining members of the Grain Handlers Association.