The lockout of longshore workers in the Pacific Northwest expanded on Saturday when Columbia Grain joined another multinational grain trader in locking out members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at the company’s grain terminal in Portland.
The company said that a slow down conducted by ILWU Local 8 members prompted the lockout.
A local union leader gave a different explanation. “”Unfortunately, Marubeni-Columbia Grain has done what it’s wanted to do all along, and locked out local workers who have made this company profitable for decades,” said Bruce Holte, president of ILWU Local 8 who also serves as a Port of Portland Commissioner. “Rather than reach a fair agreement, the company has hired an out-of-state strike-breaking firm, attorneys and a publicist to make allegations against local workers who simply want to do our jobs and support our community.”
Columbia Grain, owned by Marubeni, a multinational firm based in Japan, joins United Grain, owned by Mitsui, another Japanese-based firm, in locking out workers at its grain export facilities in the Northwest Pacific. United Grain operates out of Vancouver, Washington.
The Columbia Grain lockout is the latest development in an eight-month struggle between a group of grain traders and the union. The grain traders, members of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, have been seeking steep concessions that would undermine workers’ power on the job and make their jobs less safe. The old contract expired in September.
ILWU members rejected the association’s final offer in December with 94 percent of union members voting against it.
Three members of the grain traders association, United Grain, Columbia Grain, Louis Dreyfuss Commodities, in January imposed the terms of the rejected contract. Union members continued to work, but also continued to seek changes to the rejected contract.
In February, United Grain locked out ILWU Local 4 members in Vancouver.
With Asia’s increased demand for grain products from the US, the grain exporting business in the Pacific Northwest, which handles about a quarter of the country’s grain exports, is booming. United Grain in 2012 reported revenues of $2.16 billion.
With the increased demand, the grain export business promises to be highly profitable for years to come. The ILWU Dispatcher calls US grain, “the new gold for multinationals eager to move valuable cargo for a healthy profit.”
Despite the booming business and bright future, the grain handlers are seeking to boost profits more by imposing steep concessions on the workers who move the product.
One of the association’s members, TEMCO, broke with other members and negotiated a contract with the ILWU that was approved by 74 percent of ILWU members.
After the lockout on Saturday, a group of ILWU members in nine boats set up a seagoing picket line outside the Port of Kalama, Washington on Tuesday, May 8 to protest the lockout. The picket delayed a ship that had been partially loaded by replacement workers at the United Grain facility in Vancouver and was about to take on more grain at Kalama.
The Coast Guard issued safety violation citations to the boats’ owners, and after about five hours, the picket line dispersed.
Union members at the Port of Kalama said that when the ship docked, they would load the grain, but cover it with a tarp, so that Japanese longshore workers would be able to distinguish the union loaded grain from the non-union grain.
Local union leaders said that similar actions may be taken in the future.
“We’re not ever going to tolerate a scab boat, and it’s going to escalate” if any vessel serviced by non-union workers tries to dock at lower Columbia River ports, said Jake Whiteside, president of Longview-based Local 21 of the ILWU to TDN.com. “I’m paying very close attention.”