The end of a two-year impasse between grain workers and grain companies at Northwest ports is a long-awaited resolution that leaves some lingering questions.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union this week ratified a collective bargaining agreement with several multinational grain companies. The vote, which included members of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, passed with 88 percent approval. For the Port of Vancouver, that means operations at United Grain Corporation are returning to normal following two years of negotiations, an 18-month lockout and picket lines both outside the port's gates and in downtown Vancouver. Although details were not disclosed, the new contract calls for work rule changes and wage increases over the life of the agreement, which goes through May 31, 2018.
The timing of the deal is fortuitous. The busy harvest season is near, and grain is among Washington's most lucrative commodities. More than one-quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine terminals located along the Columbia River and on Puget Sound. "Reaching an agreement was obviously not easy, but hard work from both management and union negotiators produced a fair agreement providing well-paid employment to our Longshore workers and allowing terminal operators to remain competitive," read a statement from the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers, a consortium that includes United Grain Corporation.
The resolution is most welcome, but the process of getting there was aggravating. Among the most worrisome aspects were allegations of threats from locked-out workers toward grain inspectors. State and federal employees declined to cross picket lines in order to inspect grain before it was shipped, documenting what they felt were tactics of intimidation. The decision temporarily halted grain exports out of Vancouver. ILWU officials said United Grain created the unsafe conditions, while officials from the company and the Port of Vancouver asserted that it was safe for inspectors to cross picket lines. While it is likely that no party in the dispute was on the side of the angels, it should be noted that an agreement was reached not long after Gov. Jay Inslee removed Washington State Patrol protection for grain inspectors, giving credence to intimidation tactics and tipping the balance toward the ILWU in negotiations.
It also should be noted that ILWU workers have an ongoing dispute with ICTSI Oregon Inc. at the Port of Portland's Terminal 6. As The Oregonian wrote editorially: "The disputes share several elements. Both, of course, involve the ILWU and Northwest ports. Both have featured questionable behavior — allegations of assaults, threats and vandalism at grain terminals, and repeated work slowdowns at Terminal 6." ILWU officials blame the slowdowns on the corporation, but the union refused to cooperate with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's request for an independent review of the situation. That reflects poorly upon the ILWU.
As for Vancouver, the most important outcomes are that ILWU members are back at work and that grain is moving, ending a conflict that lingered for far too long and set a poor precedent for labor disputes. In the future, if inspectors claim they can't do their jobs, they must substantiate it and actions against the union must be taken. If not, the inspectors must be told to go to work or be terminated. Regardless of the fact that an agreement has been reached, both United Grain and the union came out losers in this dispute.