International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers in the Pacific Northwest are voting Friday and Saturday on a proposed grain handlers contract that could determine whether the dockworkers remain on the job or are locked out by international grain companies.
The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association on Nov. 16 gave the union its final contract offer, a proposed agreement that union officials are urging the membership to reject.
The union has stated since its previous contract expired on Sept. 30 that it does not want to strike against the six grain terminals represented by the association. However, the two sides appear to be far apart, and efforts earlier this month by federal mediators to help the parties reach an agreement failed.
Newspapers in the Pacific Northwest have been speculating that the terminal operators are preparing for a lockout. The employers hired the Delaware firm J.R. Gettier and Associates, a company whose services include providing security during labor disputes and supplying replacement workers. The association declined comment.
The grain terminals reportedly want a contract similar to what the ILWU signed earlier this year with the newly opened EGT export terminal in Longview, Wash. That contract gives employers greater flexibility and more favorable work rules than the contract with the six other terminals that expired on Sept. 30.
The ILWU charges that the employers’ proposed contract would compromise worker safety. The union said the grain companies have operated profitably for decades under contracts similar to the one that expired on Sept. 30. Those contracts were decidedly less favorable to employers than the EGT contract.
In a separate incident that nevertheless offers some perspective on why the grain handlers appear to have the upper hand in this dispute, the Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63 in Southern California shut down 10 of the 14 container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach for eight days beginning Nov. 27.
Despite the ILWU’s leverage in the container industry, and the poor financial performance of global liner companies the past two years, the Southern California employers remained united throughout the strike. The tentative contract that was reached on Dec. 4 is less than either side wanted, but it was what both sides needed.
The ILWU has much less leverage in the bulk grain industry. ILWU job actions against container lines have the potential of spreading to other ports because the approximately 20 liner companies call at all of the major gateways on the West Coast. The ILWU has a single coastwide contract with the container lines and terminal operators that are represented by the Pacific Maritime Association. The union has the ability to shut down container lines at all of the West Coast ports, and in fact has used that leverage in the past.
A handful of international grain companies dominate the global grain trade, and they have much deeper pockets than the container lines. Also, the terminal operators contract with bulk shipping companies that do not call on a fixed schedule covering all of the West Coast ports, so those bulk operators are not vulnerable up and down the coast.
The grain contract in the Pacific Northwest is separate from the coastwide contract covering container lines. If the union chose to post pickets and disrupt container handling at the ports, the PMA would seek arbitration and argue that the pickets represented an illegal secondary boycott.