Grain Agreement Ends Lockouts in Northwest Ports
A hard-won contract settlement has ended the 15- and 18-month lockouts of two Longshore locals by grain companies in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Columbia River and Puget Sound ports move over a quarter of all U.S. grain exports, including almost half of all wheat.
The master grain contract was approved 88.4 percent by members of the five ILWU locals affected, after 80 contentious bargaining sessions spread out over two years.
Although the employers attempted to bring lower standards to the Pacific Northwest agreement, the ILWU blocked the majority of objectionable terms.
POLICE ESCORTS YANKED
Grain employers were beside themselves in July when Washington’s governor stopped providing police escorts for state grain inspectors to cross ILWU picket lines in Vancouver, the site of the 18-month lockout. The companies then asked the local sheriff to provide security, but he refused, saying “We have never, and as long as I’m the sheriff never will, act as an escort to a private company involved in a labor dispute.”
So inspectors didn’t cross the lines, holding up shipments. The pileup threatened to worsen when fall corn and soybean crops arrived.
For cargo bound for the locked-out ports, “water pickets” meant that grain ships had problems getting escorts from tugboat workers who are members of the ILWU’s marine division, the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. The International Transport Workers Federation mobilized dockworkers globally to be on the lookout for grain shipments from Vancouver and Portland. “We wouldn’t have been back at the table without that solidarity from our brothers and sisters,” said Troy Mosteller, secretary of locked-out Local 8 in Portland.
The bottom line for the ILWU was that the contract maintains unionized grain terminals in the U.S., said Roger Boespflug, a former Local 23 President who represented his local in the grain negotiations. He acknowledged that the contract does include some setbacks.
The west coast fight was never about money, the employers never even proposed cuts. In fact, the 46-month agreement includes first year wage increases of $1.53 to $2.22 per hour, depending on classification, with modest bumps in subsequent years. First year wages range from $35.25 to $37.25 for registered longshoremen, with a $27.50 rate for non-registered casual workers.
A key demand from the employers–which the ILWU never seriously considered–was that in the event of three illegal work stoppages, the employer could subcontract the work. Failing to gain traction on that proposal, the employers then put forward a demand that should a work stoppage be found to be illegal, the union would pay $1 million plus damages. This was also beaten back by the union.
In the end, the ILWU did accept a significant concession permitting management personnel to do bargaining unit work during a work stoppage. But if the stoppage is found to have been legal, the union workers will be paid for the lost work. Nonetheless, management might be able to get the work done, which reduces union workers’ leverage in a walkout.
This might be harder for management than it sounds. Boespflug said that all of the work at the grain terminals is ILWU jurisdiction: taking the grain off the vessel, storing it in the elevator or moving it to the rails. A dispute involving any of the ILWU grain workers would result in all work stopping. If management attempted to do any of the work, they would need the personnel and the skill to do it all.
Another concession gives console operator work over to non-union grain company employees. Console operators start the equipment, and separate, weigh, and control the flow of the grain from the vessel to the terminal.
“It’s always hard to give up jurisdiction,” said Boespflug, but he said he expects that work to be automated within a few years. However, these are strategic jobs whose power outweighs their numbers, literally controlling the flow of goods into the ship.
In addition, the new agreement eliminates ILWU jurisdiction for supercargos, those workers who supervise the loading and unloading of the vessel.
According to Max Vekich, a member of the union’s executive board and a member of the Puget Sound marine clerks’ Local 52, the supercargo work had been ILWU, but done under the coastwise longshore contract, rather than the grain contract. (That contract expired July 1 and is still being negotiated.) Now the supercargo work will be done non-union by the grain shippers directly, although Vekich believes the company doesn’t have the in-house capacity to do the work, so it may return to ILWU members.
The contract also allows a reduction in the number of workers on a vessel for a two-spout operation, from 5 workers to 4. The sub-par Longview-area contracts with grain shippers EGT and Peavey have only three workers, and the employers had pushed for three longshore workers plus a working foreman.
IMPACT OF CUTS
While the impact of these cuts will not be great in the Washington ports, Mosteller said that grain is a much larger portion of the work in Portland, where most of the no votes came from. Mosteller believes this reflects a concern in Portland that the local may lose a more jobs there than in the Washington ports.
Some within the ILWU believe that a stronger mobilization might have achieved different results. Mark Downs, a veteran activist on the Seattle docks who retired after 40 years as a longshoreman, points to the ILWU’s militant history, as well as more recent labor solidarity among longshoremen, Teamsters, mariners, and rail workers that aided port truckers. He recalled a series of actions by Pacific Northwest transportation unions to aid port truckers in 1999, contrasting that unified action with what he felt was inadequate mobilization in the grain fight, as well as what he saw as a lack of support from the ILWU for port truckers in the past few months.
But, Downs said, given the situation by end of negotiations, the “yes” vote was the right move.
Despite the ILWU’s recent disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, the workers got strong support from both the Washington State Labor Council and the Oregon AFL-CIO.
None of the local leaders with whom I spoke thought that more public mobilization would have won a better contract. There was a general consensus that the contract was, as with all ILWU struggles, a reflection of their internal solidarity and militancy.
“Not everything we did [to win the contract] may have been apparent to those outside the union,” said Brad Clark, a former Local 4 president in Vancouver. “But this is a rank-and-file union, and we had a rank-and-file campaign. We were on the docks 24 hours a day, we had water pickets on the Snake River, and we put real economic pressure on the employers.”
Paul Bigman is on the executive board of the Seattle-area Martin Luther King, Jr. County Central Labor Council.