ILWU NW Longshoremen plan no immediate strike, despite Northwest grain terminals’ intention to impose contract the union just rejected
By Richard Read
December 26, 2012 at 2:31 PM
Longshore workers plan not to strike, at least for now, despite a plan announced Wednesday by Northwest grain terminal owners to force them into a contract that union members just rejected.
Owners of four grain terminals in Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are cracking down on the longshoremen, planning to impose terms of anemployer-friendly contract at 6 a.m. Thursday.
A statement issued Wednesday by United Grain Corp., Columbia Grain Inc. and Louis Dreyfus Commodities said the new contract terms would level the playing field with competing terminals in Longview, Wash., and Kalama, Wash.
“This is not a lockout,” the employers’ statement said. “The companies informed the union that ILWU members are welcome to come to work under the new terms and conditions of employment.”
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union responded with the following statement:
“The men and women of the ILWU have been exporting grain from these Northwest elevators since 1934 and intend to continue working despite the substandard provisions of the employer’s last offer. We are reviewing the multinational employer’s letter and we’re disappointed that they haven’t accepted the union’s invitation to continue negotiating to reach a fair agreement with local workers.”
Almost 94 percent of members of four longshore union locals who cast ballots Friday and Saturday voted against the terms of the “last, best and final” contract offer by the employers. Now they must submit to those terms if they show up for work Thursday.
Under the contract, fewer employees will be hired to load ships, elevator employees will be able to help load the vessels and shifts can be extended to 12 hours, among other changes.
Northwest longshoremen cave in to grain terminal owners? Not so fast &
The longshore union appeared to cave in Wednesday, agreeing members would begin working at Northwest grain terminals Thursday on terms they just resoundingly rejected.But labor lawyers say the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is actually playing it smart. If longshoremen called a strike now, refusing to accede to terms they abhor, the employers could permanently replace workers or even call a vote to eject the union.
Instead, lawyers expect the union to file a federal unfair labor practice charge, accusing terminal owners of breaking the law by forcing new terms on them before contract talks reached an impasse.
“Tactically they’re better off staying on the job and then challenging this before the National Labor Relations Board,” said Michael LeRoy, a University of Illinois labor law professor. “They would play into the employers’ hands if they went out on strike.”Therefore both sides stopped short of a waterfront abyss Wednesday. Terminal owners refrained from a widely expected lockout of longshoremen and the union chose not to strike.
The result is an odd limbo, in which longshore workers submit to working conditions in a contract offer that almost 94 percent of them voted down Friday and Saturday. And employers, who have replacement workers and tugboats standing by at considerable expense, force temporary concessions and brace for legal battles.
The standoff involves four, or perhaps six, of nine Northwest grain terminals that handle a quarter of the nation’s grain exports.
Cargill, one of the four terminal owners, has inexplicably gone missing from the employers’ coalition. Mark Klein, a Cargill spokesman, did not say Wednesday whether longshoremen at Temco terminals in Portland and Tacoma would continue working under provisions of a contract that expired Sept. 30 or submit to the new terms.
The remaining three coalition members — Columbia Grain Inc., United Grain Corp. and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — issued an announcement Wednesday saying that at 6 a.m. Thursday, they would unilaterally implement most terms of their “last, best and final” contract offer.
“This is not a lockout,” the statement said. “The companies informed the union that ILWU members are welcome to come to work under the new terms and conditions of employment.”
That contract offer slashes longshore rights and perks, saving millions of dollars in labor expenses by bringing working conditions in line with an agreement at a competing terminal in Longview, Wash. Union members were arrested during violent protests in Longview earlier this year before making the concessions in that contract.
In response Wednesday, Jennifer Sargent, a longshore union spokeswoman, said officials were reviewing a letter from an employers’ lawyer laying out terms.
“The men and women of the ILWU have been exporting grain from these Northwest elevators since 1934 and intend to continue working despite the substandard provisions of the employer’s last offer,” Sargent said in a written statement. “We are reviewing the multinational employer’s letter and we’re disappointed that they haven’t accepted the union’s invitation to continue negotiating to reach a fair agreement with local workers.”
While seeking further talks, the union can conduct so-called informational picketing, perhaps in Salem or at the offices of an employer. The union can also try to persuade the National Labor Relations Board to find the employers declared an impasse prematurely.
With that finding, LeRoy said, the employers would be liable to pay longshoremen the difference between the two contracts. Moreover the union could call an unfair-labor-practice strike, meaning employers couldn’t permanently replace workers as they can in regular economic strikes.
But that process could wind on for months. And regional NLRB attorneys in Seattle have little patience with longshoremen after clashes over a union dispute at the Port of Portland last summer.
Striking now would give the employers authority to permanently replace workers, LeRoy said. He said the grain terminals could also call a vote by strikers and replacement workers to get rid of the union, influencing the outcome by hiring more replacements.
While the union has precluded those options for the owners, the employers are on guard for sabotage, slowdowns or other illegal disruptions at the grain elevators in Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, where longshoremen could seek grounds for additional unfair labor practices charges.
“The employers’ last, best and final contract offer may be revised to reflect the additional costs caused by any such union activity,” said Wednesday’s letter from lawyer Glen McClendon, who represents the terminal owners
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