Longshore worker lockout escalates

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.”

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Global solidarity network backs longshore workers

The International Transport Federation, a global federation of unions with 4.5 million workers in the maritime, air, road, and rail transportation industry, said recently that it will actively support US longshore workers locked in a contract dispute with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA), the bargaining representative for four highly profitable international grain traders in the Northwest US.

The association has demanded 750 contract concession from members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals 4 (Vancouver, Washington), 8 (Portland), 19 (Seattle), and 23 (Tacoma).

Union members overwhelmingly rejected the association’s final contract offer, and three of the association members unilaterally imposed the concessions, which change work rules that ensured that longshore workers received a fair share of the wealth created by their increased productivity.

The two sides remain in a standoff. Union members, who could strike, continue to work, and the company, which could have locked out union workers after they rejected the contract, continue to load and unload grain at their terminals using ILWU members.

Two companies that belong to PNGHA, United Grain in Vancouver and Columbia Grain in Portland, are operating under the new work rules, but according to the Associated Press, a third PNGHA member, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, has closed its Portland elevator while upgrades are under construction and its Seattle elevator has been idle for months.

A fourth member of PNGHA, TEMCO, owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, has broken with the other members and continues to operate its grain elevator in Tacoma under the terms of the old contract.

When a Japanese ship, the Ramada Queen, recently docked at the United Grain elevator in Vancouver, ITF West Coast Coordinator Jeff Engles boarded the ship to learn if they knew about the dispute between the ILWU and PNGHA.

The captain, mates, and sailors, thanks to word from their union the Japanese Seaman’s Union (JSU), knew about the dispute and said that they were ready to support the ILWU members if a lockout or strike occurs.

“The crew reiterated that they stand 100 percent in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the ILWU,” Engles said.

JSU, an affiliate of ITF, describes itself as an industrial union that unites captains, sailors, and harbor ship workers.

JSU has a solidarity clause in its contracts with employers, which says that crew members cannot be forced to help load or unload cargo at a port where there is an official strike or lockout involving an ITF-affiliated dock workers’ union taking place. The JSU has formally reminded employers of the solidarity clause.

“When you sign up to the ITF you sign up to watching out for your mates,” said Paddy Crumlin, ITF president and chair of the ITF dock section. “That’s what solidarity is, and that’s what’s built into everything we do. I am heartened and not surprised to see this crew spreading that message.”

The ILWU and PNGHA remained closed mouth about the status of the standoff, but The Oregonian reports that two weeks ago representatives of the ILWU and TEMCO met at a hotel in Vancouver.

In the meantime, PNGHA has hired a strike breaking company JR Gettier and Associates, whose employees, according to ITF have been seen milling about the companies’ facilities.

The association has three non-union tug boats on standby to guide ships into the harbor should a strike or lockout occur.

Engles characterized PNGHA’s actions as union breaking strategies and said that ITF’s “global network of solidarity among workers provides a counterweight to the power of these corporations.”

“We don’t like employers who pretend to be interested in negotiation but reach for union busting strategies instead,” Crumlin added. “That behavior has been noticed, and here comes the warning: our friends in the ILWU can be sure of worldwide support against that type of behavior .”