NW Grain Terminal Companies Extend
by Richard Read
Northwest grain terminal owners laid groundwork Thursday to lock out workers, blasting the longshore union while extending a final contract offer until Dec. 8.
As the game of chicken escalated, the employers rebutted union criticism of their offer, saying it would boost longshore wages and benefits to $64.75 an hour. The West Coast longshore union, which could call a strike at any time, did not respond Thursday, having earlier described the offer's terms as gutting safety provisions.
The moves by the grain-terminal negotiators signal they plan to play tough with the union, risking an expensive lockout while trying to force dockworkers to grant concessions worth millions of dollars in labor savings.
Labor turmoil is breaking out elsewhere on the West Coast as a strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach disables much of the nation's busiest marine cargo complex. The strike involves the same longshore union, and occurs as unions across the country step up protests. But neither the Northwest grain terminal standoff nor two other recent longshore labor conflicts at the Port of Portland appear to be directly related to the California strike.
By extending the offer that originally expired Wednesday to 5 p.m. Dec. 8, the Northwest terminal owners gain time for satisfying requirements to prove the talks have reached an impasse. An impasse entitles an employer to tell locked-out union members they can return to work only under terms of the final offer.
Lawyers for companies that own six grain terminals in Portland, Vancouver and the Puget Sound have been negotiating with the San Francisco-based union to replace a contract that expired Sept. 30. Farmers from the Northwest to the Midwest are anxiously watching the talks, supervised by a federal mediator, concerning the terminals that handle a quarter of the nation's grain exports.
In a statement Thursday, representatives of the coalition of four grain-terminal companies said they were disappointed that union officials had tried to misrepresent the terms of their "last, best and final" offer made Nov. 16.
"In media statements this week, a union spokesperson used inflammatory language to attack the proposed agreement," said the statement by the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. "For example, the statement erroneously portrayed the ... offer as a rejection of the union's safety code."
Jennifer Sargent, a union spokeswoman, was quoted this week as criticizing the offer for rejecting a safety code that was "built over 80 years in the blood of workers killed in the industry, and that many other waterfront employers follow."
Thursday's statement from the companies -- Cargill Inc., Columbia Grain Inc., LD Commodities and United Grain Corp. -- responded that the contract wouldn't change safety policies.
A copy of the offer obtained by The Oregonian appears to heavily favor the employers.
The companies seek authority to stop hiring longshoremen if three or more work stoppages occur during the proposed contract of more than six years. The contract would also allow employers to go to court to end any work stoppages immediately and to recover damages.
In key respects, the employers' proposed agreement mirrors provisions of a contract signed earlier this year by a union local in Longview, Wash. The union granted big concessions on working conditions that are expected to save millions of dollars for Longview's Export Grain Terminal, known as EGT.
The grain terminals in the current talks compete with EGT and with another terminal, Kalama Export Co., known as KEC. The Northwest coalition is pushing longshoremen for equal or better concessions, while playing up the proposed wage increase as higher than pay at EGT.
"Given the agreements at EGT and KEC," the coalition's statement said, "it's puzzling why the ILWU won't agree to apply the same terms."
But longshore leaders face intense pressure from union members not to sign such a contract again.
Leal Sundet, who leads the longshore negotiating team, recently won reelection as a coast committeeman for the union.
Longshoremen, influenced by union dissidents who criticize leaders for allowing the EGT contract provisions, want Sundet to prevent further erosion. They don't want more concessions to set precedent for negotiation of the next West Coast collective bargaining agreement in 2014.
The opposing union and management agendas place the longshoremen and the Northwest grain terminals on a collision course. Given the $10 billion in annual exports handled by the terminals, stakes are far higher than those in two recent conflicts involving security officers and electrical work at the Port of Portland.
The high-wire act on the grain talks proceeds as West Coast labor turmoil spreads.
A strike this week in Los Angeles has essentially shut down the nation's busiest shipping complex, forcing cargo ships to reroute to other ports in diversions reminiscent of those caused by the Port of Portland conflicts. Negotiators for Los Angeles employers and the longshore union said Thursday they would resume talks after the third day of a strike by 70 clerical workers.
Longshoremen are honoring the clerks' picket line at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The disruption is costing an estimated $1 billion a day at the ports, which about 600,000 truckers, dockworkers, trading companies and others depend on for their livelihoods, the Los Angeles Times reported.
International-trade expert Jock O'Connell, at Beacon Economics in Sacramento, said unions nationwide are responding to years of cuts in wages and benefits. Strikes and protests at Twinkies-maker Hostess Brands, Wal-Mart and New York City fast-food outlets are recent examples, he said.
"Labor has reached a point where they say, 'We have to draw a line in the sand here. We just can't continue to give and give and give,'" O'Connell said.
"Depending on where you sit politically, it's either a colossal cost to the nation or something that needs to be done to protect the rights of labor and workers."
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