In Our View: Union's Chips Are Down

It appears to have little bargaining power as lockout at port marks first anniversary

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hile the reasonable argument is that it's time for an agreement to be reached, we struggle to see what bargaining chips the union is holding in the ongoing dispute between United Grain Corp. and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at the Port of Vancouver. Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of when United Grain locked out as many as 44 members of the union, and we're still waiting for a resolution to the conflict.

Since then, United Grain has made do by reassigning some non-union employees and by bringing in some replacement workers. The company continues to move agricultural products to overseas markets, contributing to one of the vital pillars of Washington's economy. An estimated 3.2 million metric tons of grain moves through the Port of Vancouver in an average year.

Meanwhile, ILWU workers continue to walk picket lines outside the gate at the port and at a more visible location in downtown Vancouver. The lockout has impacted their families and has led to an uneasy uncertainty for Eastern Washington farmers whose livelihoods rely upon stability in the transportation of their wheat.

As reported by Aaron Corvin in The Columbian, the company wants the union to agree to an employer-friendly contract that mirrors one the ILWU signed with Export Grain Terminal in Longview in February 2012. The union counters that United Grain and other grain-handling companies in the region are attempting to break the union and hurt workers. While both sides acknowledge that they are in ongoing negotiations — without specifying how much progress has been made — it should be apparent by now that they are engaging in circular arguments with no end in sight.

It also should be apparent that the company's ability to continue operations does not bode well for the leverage of the workers in this dispute. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said, "The supply chain is functioning well." Hector Castro, communications director for the state Agriculture Department, said, "inspections are continuing, and we've had no interruptions in service since at least October."

In addition, union workers are facing an uphill battle against public perception. For example, a recent report in The Oregonian about the Port of Portland highlighted how a contract between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast cargo carriers and terminal operators, includes a Pay Guarantee Plan. That provision requires the employers to establish a $20 million annual fund to pay senior union members when they don't work. The provision does little to assist "casual" employees who don't have as much seniority or training, and it does even less to engender public sympathy for locked-out workers. Ensuring pay for workers when they don't work reinforces the notion that unions are conduits for employee disincentives.

All of which complicates the dispute taking place at the Port of Vancouver. Negotiations began in August 2012; workers were locked out one year ago this week. As The Columbian wrote editorially: "The solution for any labor dispute can be found at the bargaining table; it cannot be found in lockouts or pickets or replacement workers . . ." That was six months ago, and nothing has changed since then.

And, with grain still moving through the Port of Vancouver and some ILWU workers benefitting from a Pay Guarantee Plan, it's no wonder that little progress has been made.