Northwest longshoremen work despite unpopular contract

PORTLAND, Ore. — Longshoremen at grain terminals in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., went to work Thursday under the contract terms they soundly rejected last weekend.

The terminal owners implemented the terms of their “last, best and final” offer at 6 a.m. after declaring talks to be at an impasse.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union could have called for a strike. Instead, the employees showed up for work as the union decides its next move. Options other than a strike include accepting management’s offer, filing an unfair labor charge or working under the terms while seeking further talks.

An ILWU spokesman, Jennifer Sargent, declined to discuss union strategy.

The last contract expired Sept. 30, and a disagreement over workplace rules has been the obstacle to a new deal. The pro-management terms implemented Thursday eliminate some employee perks and grievance procedures while giving employers more discretion in hiring and staffing decisions. Management, for example, can expand shifts to 12 hours, if needed, and use elevator employees to help load ships.

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine grain terminals on the Willamette River and Puget Sound. The dispute initially involved six of those terminals that operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU: Columbia Grain, based in Portland; United Grain, based in Vancouver; Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which has grain elevators in Portland and Seattle; and Temco, which has elevators in Portland and Tacoma, Wash.

Longshore workers at Columbia Grain and United Grain, both Japanese-owned, arrived for work Thursday, and officials from both ports said there were no slowdowns or workplace disruptions.

“Everything seems to be working just fine,” said Theresa Wagner, a Port of Vancouver spokeswoman.

The issue was moot for longshoremen at LD Commodities. The company’s terminal in Portland, which handles wheat, is not operating this week because of construction to upgrade its elevator near the Steel Bridge. Its Seattle terminal, which handles corn and soybeans, has been idle for months.

The terms under which Temco employees are working remained a mystery Thursday. The U.S.-owned firm broke away from the alliance earlier this month and it’s believed to be negotiating separately with the union.

Farmers from as far away as the Midwest have been keeping abreast of the situation. Besides the labor dispute in the Northwest, they must contend with low-water levels on the Mississippi River, which could impede barge transportation.

“We like to pride ourselves as being the lowest-cost provider, and that’s predominantly due to our transportation superiority compared to South America,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Iowa-based Soy Transportation Coalition.

Steenhoek said 78 percent of U.S. soybean exports go down the Mississippi and the rest go through the Pacific Northwest. The harvest season runs inversely to South America so these are the important months for growers and their customers in Asia.

“We’re the lowest cost and the most reliable,” Steenhoek said. “That’s a reputation that’s been hard-earned and we don’t want to see that challenged.”

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