With a midnight Wednesday deadline looming, grain handlers in the Pacific Northwest and International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers at six export terminals are bracing for labor actions on Thursday that could involve an employer lockout or a forceful ILWU response to a lockout.
The deadline involves a final contract offer from the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association that, if accepted by the ILWU, would dramatically change work practices at grain terminals in the region.
The powerful ILWU is taking an aggressive stand in another showdown this week between office clerical workers and container terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach. ILWU dockworkers have refused to cross a picket line posted by office clerical workers, shutting down the largest container terminal on the West Coast.
The ILWU, however, has struck a conciliatory tone in the Pacific Northwest. “We hope that the grain industry will not choose the aggressive option of a disruptive lockout, but will come back to the negotiating table and reach a fair agreement with local workers who have generated their profits for many years,” ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said.
The contract between the ILWU and six terminals in Oregon and Washington that handle approximately 25 percent of U.S. grain exports expired on Sept. 30. The two sides have been unable to reach a new contract, even with the help of a federal mediator.
The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association made its final contract offer to the union on Nov. 16. According to a report Wednesday in the Oregonian, the employers’ offer includes an increase in the base wage for workers, but ends certain pay practices, work rules and grievance procedures that have long been a part of the grain contracts.
The employers’ group Wednesday had no comment on the contract offer.
The ILWU charged the employers’ proposal would compromise worker safety. “Grain work is dangerous,” Sargent said. “We obviously do not want the profitable grain companies to gamble with our lives, yet their ‘last, best and final offer’ rejects our safety code that was built over 80 years in the blood of workers killed in the industry, and that many other waterfront employers follow.”
Although the ILWU has worked at grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest for eight decades, the rules of the game changed this past year with the opening of the EGT grain export terminal in Longview, Wash.
EGT, an international venture led by Bunge North America, attempted last year to open the facility by employing workers from another union. The opening was delayed by months of ILWU protests. The demonstrations resulted in numerous arrests of union members and their spouses.
The result, however, was an agreement earlier this year in which EGT signed a contract with the ILWU that appears to have come back to haunt the union.
That contract includes a number of concessions the union had never before made to grain handlers. Now, according to the grain handlers’ association, the six terminals need similar concessions that the ILWU made to EGT in order to remain competitive.