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Q&A: Grain Shippers, Union Working On Agreement

Talks between some Northwest grain shippers and a handful of longshore unions have paused.

The two sides are trying to work through contract talks that have the potential to bottle up grain exports to Asia.

OPB’s April Baer has been following the story and joins me now.

Beth Hyams: April, What’s happened this afternoon?

April Baer: We’ve been  waiting to see if the two sides got anywhere with last-minute negotiations.

I just received a statement ten minutes ago from the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. It says the group “met this afternoon and will respond tomorrow to comments received from representatives of ILWU about the group’s last, best and final offer.”

And I talked about five minutes ago to Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals in this dispute. She says they’re not to the point of considering a strike, that they’d have to make a strike vote. They have not done that yet. It’s worth noting, not every variation in work routines is a union-authorized strike. We have seen examples in which protest actions happened that were not union-approved strikes. For now, it certainly appears the two sides are still talking - at least til tomorrow.

The work of these six grain terminals has many stakeholders, from grain growers, to other marine unions that might stop work in sympathy for a lockout or strike.

The Port of Portland told me if there’s a stoppage, other tenants in Terminal 5 would be asked to use a separate gate, to maintain access. That’s just one example of how the six facilities are making plans for whatever may come.

Beth Hyams: Can you explain what workers and what workplaces are we talking about?

April Baer:There are nine terminals built to handle grain in the Northwest. Six of them are governed by the same agreement with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Two are up in the Seattle area, one’s in Tacoma, one’s in Vancouver, Washington, and the rest are in the North end of Portland. Now, these sites are owned by the Ports, but they’re leased by companies that handle and ship grain. So that’s who’s involved in these negotiations. The Ports are not involved in the talks.

There are four unions that represent workers at these six terminals. They work as stevedores. Some of them operate cranes or drive trucks & loading equipment. And some of them are supervisors. The ILWU is something of a storied union, with a long history in the Ports, and some locals have not been afraid to wield the power of the strike, if they thought it necessary.

View Grain Handlers By the Numbers in a larger map

Beth Hyams: What’s the significance of these grain handlers to the regional economy.

April Baer: Ports in Oregon and Washington are extremely important to grain growers in both states. But there’s also a big export business here for corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest, on their way across the Pacific. And these companies move grain out to all kinds of global markets.

According to the Port of Portland, just the one grain handler sited at the Port’s Terminal 5, Columbia Grain, handled over 4.7 million tons of grain in 2011. A number of other Ports in this network of six have expanded their facilities recently. That shows the current demand, and expectations for growth in grain exports.

Beth Hyams: Can you give us a sense of what the unions and the grain handlers want out of this?

April Baer: We don’t have a clear picture of the bargaining points - neither side has been willing to talk about that.  
It appears the negotiations have been informed by what happened at the Port of Longview in 2011 and this year, as a different Longshore Local negotiated with Export Grain Terminal, or EGT, the operator of Longview’s grain expert terminal.

A protracted negotiation gave way to EGT hiring workers from another union. At the end of the day, EGT had gained some concessions in the structure of work shifts, pension liability, and the staffing of certain control positions.
A spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association have said that’s just what the grain handling companies wanted. It may be the ILWU would like to resist similar concessions.

The Oregonian newspaper obtained a copy of an agreement the grain handlers proposed earlier this month. It suggested that, at the time, the operators wanted to be able to expand, reduce, or stop business without notice. They were asking for the right to so-called “stop-work” meetings, and some variations in who’s allowed to handle control-room work.

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