by Mateusz Perkowski
Several Northwest grain handlers have extended a deadline for the longshoremen's union to accept a labor contract offer, holding off potential disruptions until at least Dec. 8.
Negotiations between the owners of six grain export terminals and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been threatening to break down since early autumn, worrying farmers and elevators who need to move grain through the facilities.
Most recently, the grain handlers gave the union until Nov. 28 to accept a "last and final" labor contract proposal, sparking fears of disruption that could impede grain exports and back up crop shipments in the Northwest and beyond.
Grain handlers could potentially lock out longshoremen and replace them with non-union workers or enact the contract, which may lead to an strike -- either outcome would likely be disruptive.
The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents six export terminals in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore., temporarily forestalled those possibilities by giving the union until 5 p.m. on Dec. 8 to respond.
The ILWU previously said it did not want to strike and preferred to continue the talks.
Nonetheless, the two sides have exchanged sharp words over the nature of the disagreement, which centers on work rules rather than pay and benefits.
The longshoremen's union issued a statement claiming that the grain handlers' proposal "rejects our safety code" and said it doesn't want the companies to "gamble with our lives."
The grain handlers countered that the union had used "inflammatory language" to misrepresent the contract offer, saying that safety is a "top priority" for the companies and that existing policies would be unchanged.
Revisions to the work rules will allow handlers to "count on employees to provide a full day's work for a full day's pay, and provide a means to ensure ILWU employees will comply with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement rather than engaging in illegal work stoppages," the association said in a statement.
Longshoremen have been offered a pay and benefits package of $64.75 an hour, which is higher than offered to workers at the EGT terminal in Longview, Wash., which is under a separate labor contract, the association said.
The grain handlers' goal is to obtain similar work rules that provide the EGT terminal with a "clear competitive advantage," which the union agreed to last year, the association said.
The ILWU issued a response alleging the grain handlers statement contained "many factual errors" and said the companies "need to care about our regional economy and not just their own astronomical profits."
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