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News / Business

Portland port braces for strike

Possible action by longshoremen would affect local terminal

The Columbian
Published: November 18, 2012, 4:00pm

PORTLAND — Port of Portland officials are bracing for a strike by longshore workers starting Nov. 25 that would tie up millions of dollars worth of freight at three terminals.

Representatives of the Port and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union say the strike could still be averted. But Port officials believe cargo ships may begin bypassing Portland because of the uncertainty created by the failure of last-ditch contract talks Friday.

Separately, owners of Northwest terminals handling a quarter of the nation’s grain exports said Friday they’d presented a final offer to the longshore union. Failure of those talks could lead to a strike or lockout at six grain terminals in Portland, Vancouver and the Puget Sound.

The simultaneous actions are the most extreme developments in months of labor turmoil at the Port, where yet another dispute involving the same union led ships to bypass Portland last summer, clogging cargo and slowing Oregon’s economy. Closure of the three Port terminals, let alone a crisis at the grain elevators, would wreak far greater economic havoc and could cause container shipping lines to pull out for good.

Only 25 security officers in union Local 28 work at the Port of Portland terminals that are headed for a strike. But their affiliation with the powerful West Coast longshore union magnifies the potential effects, as fellow members who handle cargo reserve the right not to cross the officers’ picket lines.

“We are scheduled to strike in nine days and have no more meetings scheduled at this time,” said Local 28 steward David Vale, in an email Friday.

The strike plan sets the stage for a sort of perfect storm of labor disruptions on Portland’s waterfront.

Coincidental breakdown of the security officer talks and the grain negotiations could close a total of seven Portland-area terminals, although the grain elevator owners plan to hire substitute workers — or scabs, in union parlance. In addition, last summer’s separate container terminal dispute is boiling over in the courtroom, as a federal judge ponders whether to find the union in contempt and stop it from allegedly coercing shipping lines.

Port of Portland managers won’t say whether they would bring in workers to replace striking security guards and their fellow longshore union members at terminals 2, 4 and 6. But Port officials are about to contact shipping lines with vessels heading toward Portland and warn them of the problems.

“We’ll explain the current situation and where we are in the negotiations and what the issue is about,” said Dan Pippenger, Port general manager of marine

operations. “Ultimately, those are the shipping lines’ decisions. We certainly don’t tell them which way to go.”

Given the high stakes, both sides will face pressure from political leaders and others to return to the bargaining table. But for now, Gov. John Kitzhaber won’t try to intervene, said a spokesman, Tim Raphael.

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Blaise Lamphier, Port labor relations manager, said negotiators for the Port and the security officers agreed Friday on 41 of 44 outstanding contract issues. But after 17 months of talks, they remain at loggerheads on the toughest issue: a job guarantee sought by members of Local 28, who want the same protection they say the Port has already included in the lease agreement with ICTSI Oregon Inc., the company that operates Terminal 6.

“We don’t want to repeat that same mistake,” Pippenger said. “It’s the crux of the issue at T-6 with the ILWU and the IBEW,” he said, referring to the dispute between the longshore union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that is mired in federal litigation.

In that case, the longshore union claims the equivalent of two jobs held by electricians who plug, unplug and monitor refrigerated containers known as reefers. The Port reserved that work decades ago for the electricians, Pippenger said, and officials aren’t about to lock into other job guarantees that could constrict future operations.

Longshore union leaders maintain their West Coast labor contract trumps the lease agreement, giving their members the container work. But the court ruled against them.

Meanwhile concerning the grain talks, a spokesman for the terminal owners said that their organization, the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, presented its “last, best and final offer” Friday.

“Despite the work of the federal mediators, discussions on key issues have failed to produce an agreement,” spokesman Pat McCormick said.