Grain handlers call for mediator to help resolve dispute with ILWU

The association representing Pacific Northwest grain elevator operators on October 15 requested that a federal mediator join its contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The union agreed to allow a mediator play a role in resolving the contract dispute.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a consortium that represents operators of six of the nine grain elevators in Oregon and Washington in a collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU, had threatened a lockout if ILWU did not agree to concessions by the time the current contract expired on September 30.

The union refused to bow to the association’s threat, and both sides agreed to keep talking after the current contract expired.

The grain handlers are seeking new work rules that will allow it to lower labor costs. The union contends that the current work rules have brought stability and enabled productivity gains that have made grain exporting a very profitable business.

“Global grain exporters are trying to put the squeeze on the longshoremen who have worked for decades to make the Pacific Northwest grain export industry the success that it is today,” said ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the committee that negotiates the Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement. “We have an 80-year contract with these companies, and the employer is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich. It’s critical that workers protect the gains we’ve made over the years.”

The Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes modeled after the agreement reached earlier this year between the ILWU and EGT, the multi-national owner of the Pacific Northwest’s newest grain elevator located in Longview, Washington.

ILWU and EGT fought a pitched battle over staffing at the elevator that began in 2011 and didn’t end until February.

EGT at one time sought to use non-union labor to staff its new grain elevator. The ILWU stood up for its members’ right to work at EGT’s new facility. The union organized mass pickets, temporarily stopped the delivery of grain to the elevator, and suffered mass arrests as members and union leadership fought to protect the union’s jurisdiction over the new work at the EGT elevators.

As the union and its supporters were poised to block the elevator’s first grain delivery by sea earlier this year, the dispute was resolved when the governor of Washington Christine Gregoire intervened.

In return for winning jurisdiction over the work at EGT, the ILWU agreed to some work rule concessions. For example, the ILWU, agreed, to allow EGT to hire longshoremen for two 12 hour shifts, instead of two eight-hour shifts and one five-hour, higher paid graveyard shift as is the practice at other grain elevators.

The EGT contract also allows the company to seek damages for work stoppages and allows the company to stop using ILWU members if the union doesn’t pay damages resulting from the work stoppages or if an arbitrator rules that three work stoppages have occurred during a five-year period.

There are other work rule changes that give EGT an advantage over the other elevator operators. Now, the Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes that mirror the EGT agreement.

The ILWU says that concessions it agreed to with EGT were temporary and that it plans during future negotiations to bring the work at EGT up to union standards at the other grain elevators in the Northwest.

“The Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement is a mature, decades-long contract that has made the Northwest one of the most productive export grain export regions in the world,” Sundet said. “The EGT contract will build in subsequent negotiations. The industry moguls are mistaken in thinking they can take advantage of a new competitor to downgrade their own successful contract.”

About one-quarter of the US’s grain exports, including half of its wheat exports, move through the Pacific Northwest ports. The grain elevators, which store the grain, are owned by large trading corporations such as United Grain Corporation, which operates an elevator at the port of Vancouver, Washington. United Grain is a private corporation owned by the Mitsui Group of Japan. Last year, it reported revenues of more than $2 billion.

TEMCO, operates elevators in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon. It is owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, Inc., both are global agribusiness corporations. According to the International Business Times, Cargill in 2011 had revenues of $119.5 billion and profits of $2.7 billion.

Columbia Grain operates an elevator at the Port of Portland. According to the company’s website, Columbia’s grain elevator is “one of the most advanced export grain facilities in the world” that has achieved high rates of efficiency and productivity. The website doesn’t mention that its elevator’s efficiency and productivity were achieved while the current work rules negotiated by the ILWU were in effect.

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