Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 01:25 PM
The operators of four grain-export terminals in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, Wash., are involved in a tense contract dispute that by next week could bring a lockout at facilities that ship Washington wheat as well as Midwest corn and soybeans.
Hundreds of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been working under an expired contract since Sept. 30.
On Friday they begin two days of voting on what a spokesman for the grain companies describes as a “last, best and final contract proposal.”
The union’s negotiating committee has unanimously recommended rejecting that offer.
Northwest wheat growers are watching the dispute, concerned about possible disruptions in shipping as they seek to move a bumper harvest to Asian markets.
“We just don’t know what is going to happen,” said Dave Gordon, general manager of the Walla Walla Grain Growers Association
Union officials are supposed to report the results of the vote by Monday. After that, the grain export companies could opt to lockout union workers and operate with replacements, which union officials say already have been recruited.
More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine Northwest ports.
The ones now facing the contract vote are Seattle and Portland terminals operated by LD Commodities, a United Grain terminal in Vancouver and a Columbia Grain terminal in Portland.
The Seattle terminal, an array of tall concrete silos and a long conveyor prominently situated off Elliott Avenue West north of Myrtle Edwards Park, handles soybeans and corn grown outside the region. It has not received a ship since August, according to port and industry officials. The other three terminals are important hubs for exporting Northwest wheat to Asia.
In a statement this week, Leal Sundet, an ILWU officer who co-chaired the negotiating committee, alleged the companies intended to “risk the U.S. export market to try to break the union.”
Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the companies, would not comment on what steps the companies have taken. “There have been prudent preparations for all contingencies,” he said.
Some grain elevators up the Columbia River also could be affected if there is a lockout, because the barges they use to transport grain to export terminals are staffed by a union affiliated with the ILWU. The crews would be expected to honor the picket lines and not deliver grain.
“It’s our responsibility to get it (the wheat) delivered to Portland, and because our company is located on the river, we load it on barges,” said Gordon, adding that costs and logistical concerns rule out shipping the grain by railroad.
The prospect of strife on the water has prompted the Coast Guard to establish no-entry buffer zones in the water around two grain terminals, around vessels headed to or from those terminals, and four tugs that could be used to assist deliveries.
“There is the potential for injury and damage to both protesters and shipping” due to the dispute, the Coast Guard stated in rules published this month in the Federal Register.
The ILWU has deep roots in the West Coast labor movement dating back to the historic 1930s organizing efforts of dockworkers in Washington, Oregon and California.
Last year in Longview, union members and supporters challenged EGT, a major new exporter that built a $200 million terminal and planned to operate without unionized employees.
A series of protests resulted in more than 120 arrests and included the spilling of grain from freight cars. They ended last January when a settlement was reached to employ union members at the terminal.
To remain competitive, operators of other terminals have said they are seeking the same terms that the union agreed to with EGT.
The ILWU’s Sundet, in a statement released this week, said the companies rejected a union proposal that “equalizes the playing field in all points that matter.”
The export companies involved in the dispute are big players in the international grain markets. LD Commodities is part of Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities; Columbia Grain is owned by Japan’s Marubeni Corp., while United Grain belongs to Mitsui & Co. of Japan.
Temco, an operator of two terminals in Kalama and Portland, also was involved through most of the labor negotiations.
But earlier this week, Temco’s name was not attached to the companies’ statement requesting Friday’s vote, and McCormick declined to comment on the status of Temco’s status in the talks.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
A labor dispute is brewing between grain terminals and longshore operators, and the Port of Seattle Grain Export Facility is part of the dispute. No ships have docked there since August.