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Calmer Heads Prevail in
Port of Portland Disputes

by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, December 28, 2012

A Cowlitz County Sheriff grabs a union worker by the throat as police move in on several hundred union workers blocking a grain train in Longview, Wash., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011 No one would describe 2012 as a peaceful year at the Port of Portland. Nor would anyone describe the current labor environment at its terminals as ideal. But as 2013 approaches, the Port is operating adequately to keep cargo moving to and from customers. Considering what could have happened at one of Oregon's most important economic generators, that's worth a toast.

To review what transpired this year, at the risk of giving Port Executive Director Bill Wyatt a migraine:

Refrigerated containers: In June, a dispute involving the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers moved into public view in the form of a work slowdown at the Port. In the narrowest sense, the disagreement sprang from the ILWU's insistence that it should have responsibility for plugging and unplugging refrigerated containers -- tasks assigned to the IBEW for 38 years. In a broader sense, the dispute reflected the longshore workers' unease with the Port's decision to contract out terminal operations to ICTSI Oregon Inc. and disagreement with specifics of that contract.

Today, the jurisdictional dispute continues to work its way through courts and the National Labor Relations Board resolution process. After unfavorable court and NLRB rulings, longshore workers have picked up the pace of work enough to return operations to something resembling normal. But Port officials say containers are being loaded and unloaded more slowly than early this year.

Security officers: In July, the Port entered contract talks with terminal security officers, who are represented by the longshore union. In the fall, those talks were stalled and the guards threatened to strike. A strike would have crippled operations because longshore workers would have honored picket lines. Gov. John Kitzhaber urged both sides to settle their differences.

On Nov. 24, the two sides reached an agreement with the help of state mediator Bob Nightingale.

Grain terminals: The Port's negotiations with the security guards occurred about the same time that the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association was attempting to reach a new contract with the ILWU. Those negotiations reached a threshold this week when some of the terminal operators imposed a new contract that union members had overwhelmingly rejected. Rather than strike, union workers stayed on the job.

Labor experts expect the union to file an unfair labor practice charge, though as of Friday afternoon that had not happened.

High drama on the waterfront isn't limited to Portland.

A federal mediator announced Friday that an expired contract for workers in the International Association of Longshoremen would be extended for another 30 days, avoiding a strike at East and Gulf Coast ports while negotiations continue. Federal mediators earlier this month helped broker an agreement to end a strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The only American institution with more dysfunction than its ports might be Congress. But beneath the ugly surface, something important is happening on the waterfront. Both sides are for the most part playing by the rules and collective bargaining is working the way it should.

Both labor and management stand to benefit from showing the American people that they can get along.

Labor has seen its influence decline for decades, in part because of its reluctance to accept common-sense changes necessary to adapt to technology and globalization. And corporate America has watched its approval rating plummet in the wake of scandals such as Enron and WorldCom and, more recently, the unrestrained greed that led to the financial collapse.

Negotiators at the Port of Portland are focused on specific issues, not public opinion. But from any perspective, they have a difficult job. It's unlikely either side feels particularly good as the year comes to an end, but they are finding a way to work through differences without doing too much harm to the economy. And that's good for everyone.

It could all fall apart tomorrow -- or today for that matter. But for now it's possible to sit on the dock of the bay and watch the ships roll in without getting seasick.

Editorial Board
Calmer Heads Prevail in Port of Portland Disputes
The Oregonian, December 28, 2012

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