Longshoremen soundly reject contract offer
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Longshoremen at a half-dozen Pacific Northwest grain terminals have overwhelmingly rejected what owners describe as their "last, best and final" contract offer, increasing the odds of a post-holiday lockout.
Terminal owners, in a statement released Monday afternoon, said they were "disappointed" by the vote and were reviewing their options. They have replacement workers standing by to ensure grain exports to Asia.
"Regardless of the outcome, they remain committed to operating," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the consortium of owners known as the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, meanwhile, asked the owners to return to the bargaining table and offered negotiation dates.
"The men and women of the ILWU have voted to reject the profitable grain exporters' concessionary demands, but we remain committed to reaching a fair agreement that continues our 80-year history of making these export terminals successful," Rich Austin, co-chairman of the union negotiating committee, said in a statement.
Roughly 3,000 longshoremen were eligible to vote on the contract offer and 93.8 percent rejected it, a union spokeswoman said. The last collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 30.
More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports move through grain terminals on the Willamette River and Puget Sound. The dispute involves six of those terminals that operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU:
Japan-based Marubeni Corp. (Columbia Grain in Portland).
Japan-based Mitsui & Co. (United Grain in Vancouver, Wash.).
Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities (grain elevators in Seattle and Portland).
United States-based Cargill and CHS Inc. (Temco elevators in Tacoma and Portland).
One of the four owners, the Cargill and CHS joint venture, has been omitted from recent Grain Handlers Association statements, including Monday's, a signal it is negotiating separately with the union and will not be involved in a lockout. McCormick declined comment on that issue as has Cargill spokesman Mark Klein.
Salary and benefits have not been sticking points during the months-long negotiations. Rather, the owners want to implement workplace rules or management rights they consider more advantageous.
The other Northwest grain terminals, based in the Washington cities of Longview and Kalama, operate under separate agreements with the ILWU. Representatives from the terminals involved in this negotiation say they are at a competitive disadvantage because the longshoremen at their facilities have more favorable rules than those in Kalama and Longview.
The owners, who say they would accept either the Kalama or Longview contract, want to eliminate perks such as paying workers a half-hour's wages for working as little as six minutes. They also want greater discretion in hiring and staffing decisions and, according to a statement, "the ability to hold the union to its agreement not to engage in work stoppages."
Employers, under the contract proposal, would be allowed to immediately go to court to end any work stoppages and to recover damages.
The ILWU argues that the Longview deal, agreed to earlier this year after a sometimes-violent dispute, is not an appropriate guide for this contract. In that situation, the union agreed to more management-friendly terms because it initially hadn't been hired to work at the new export terminal. In this negotiation, such terms would represent a significant giveback.
"The grain exporters have not bargained in good faith, instead rejecting every effort by the union to reach a compromised settlement," said Leal Sundet, an ILWU coast committeeman. "In essence, their 'last and final' offer was not fundamentally different than that originally presented in September."
If a lockout occurs, the Coast Guard expects longshoremen to protest in boats on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The agency has established a safety zone around all inbound and outbound grain-shipment vessels at the Columbia Grain and United Grain terminals.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.