Grain Agreement Ends Lockouts in Northwest Ports

Longshore union members in Portland and Vancouver, Washington were locked out for over a year by grain shippers after the workers refused unacceptable contracts. A new agreement means they're back to work. Photo: Doug Geisler (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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.


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.

What Happened at Longview?

ILWU has a separate contract with EGT, a grain company in Longview, Washington that refused in 2011 to use labor from Local 21 at its new grain terminal, leading to militant picket lines and international solidarity. The town was the site of notable civil disobedience by the local: they occupied the grain terminal and dumped tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of grain on the railroad tracks. In the end, their contract contained painful concessions, but secured the work.

Brad Clark, a former Local 4 president arrested for “criminal trespass” during the course of the Vancouver lockout, says that while the new grain contract was somewhat of a retreat, it was “far better” than the EGT agreement. But, he argued, the EGT contract was a real victory, since it brought new jurisdiction to the union. The EGT agreement brought 47 new jobs to the Longview local, according to Max Vekich, an ILWU executive board member.


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.



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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.


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.


Jenny Brown | 10/23/14

Dear Jenny and Al,
I think you’ve probably seen the “open letter” from Jack Heyman to me and Labor Notes regarding the article that I wrote about the ILWU grain contract. Although Jack’s letter was posted on the ILWU list, it was clearly aimed at a non-ILWU audience more than at ILWU members, so I assume it will be circulated other places. In case anyone contacts Labor Notes with questions about the issues that Jack raised, I wanted to give you some context. Please feel free to share this with others if it seems appropriate.

I want to start by stressing that Jack and I know each other from when I worked for the ILWU. I like and respect Jack, although I often question his tactics in putting forward his views.

First, Jack seems to imply some kind of collaboration among Craig Merrilees (ILWU Communications Director), Labor Notes and me, presumably to put forward the views of the International. Although I’ve spoken with Craig a few times, and I think I met him once, I don’t really know him. I haven’t spoken with Craig or anyone else representing the International about the contract or what led up to it – not because I question the value of his input, but because I wanted to put forward the views of the rank-and-file longshore workers affected by the agreement. Certainly nobody from the International had any input into the article.

Obviously, you can respond to implications about Labor Notes. I’m pretty certain that neither of you, as the co-editors, are in any kind of regular touch with Craig – again, not that there would be anything wrong if you were. But I have a long history with Labor Notes, going back to 1986 when started writing articles for LN. I’ve always found Labor Notes to be quite open, and willing to print articles with which the staff didn’t necessarily agree. I’m skeptical about the implications of bias. In fact, the biggest issue that I’ve had with Labor Notes over the years is that the magazine seems willing to print articles attacking elected leadership of unions – and particularly of Internationals – without seeking input from those being criticized, or verifying the accuracy of the criticism.

I took on writing the article in part because of an attack of that sort printed in Jacobin. It was written by an academic who, disturbingly, had a copy of the proposed agreement before the members had voted on it, and was commenting on the agreement while voting was going on. I view that as inexcusable interference with the democratic process of the ILWU, and think that whoever gave him the proposed agreement would find no support within the rank-and-file for exposing that process to outside intervention.

But the real point that I want to make is that - as with other articles I've written for Labor Notes - I didn't put my own view of the grain contract into the article. On the contrary, I stressed to Labor Notes that, unlike the author of the Jacobin article trashing the ILWU and the settlement, I wanted to give voice to the longshore workers working under the contract. Jack is, of course, absolutely right in noting that I was an organizer for the ILWU, not a working longshore worker. As when I was on staff, I don't put forward my views on internal matters for the ILWU - that's for the members to do. There's a reason, I think, that the very first of the basic ILWU principles is:

"A Union is built on its members. The strength, understanding and unity of the membership can determine the union’s course and its advancements. The members who work, who make up the union and pay its dues can best determine their own destiny. If the facts are honestly presented to the members in the ranks, they will best judge what should be done and how it should be done. In brief, it is the membership of the union which is the best judge of its own welfare; not the officers, not the employers, not the politicians and the fair weather friends of labor. Above all, this approach is based on the conviction that given the truth and an opportunity to determine their own course of action, the rank and file in 99 cases out of 100 will take the right path in their own interests and in the interests of all the people."

In writing the article I spoke with quite a number of longshore workers in the Pacific Northwest, both those I quoted and other rank-and-file activists. None agreed with the perspective in the Jacobin article or Jack’s letter regarding the grain contract. In fact, most were angry about the Jacobin article because they felt that it badly mischaracterized the content of the agreement. The points that they cited as being in error are substantially repeated by Jack. What I wrote wasn't based on my own view of the contract or the struggle that led to the contract; it was based on the views of rank and file longshore workers and their comrades who they elected to lead the union.

When I was the ILWU organizer for the Puget Sound, there were times when I personally sympathized with viewpoints that Jack expressed. But I also recognized that a large majority of the members thought he was completely off-base. His attacks on the elected leadership of the ILWU and the policies which the members endorse suggest that either he doesn’t believe that the rank and file have the facts about their contract or their leadership, or he rejects the first basic principle of the ILWU, and thinks that the rank and file are not capable of taking the right path in their own interests.

I think it’s fair to note that Jack’s viewpoint on issues within the ILWU have often been those of a very, very small minority of the membership. When Jack has held elected positions within the ILWU, he quite appropriately would point to his position as an indication that he spoke for Local 10 members. It’s discouraging that he nonetheless implies that the elected representatives of the International and of the Locals in the Northwest aren’t due the same respect.

In solidarity,
Paul Bigman

Jack Heyman | 10/23/14

I’ve been overseas for a while and just got back in time to help the Stop Zim Action Committee organize a successful community picket against the Israeli ship, Zim Shanghai, in the port of Oakland on September 27 protesting the genocidal Zionist killing of over 2,100 Palestinians, most of them Gazan civilians. In the best tradition of the ILWU not one container was handled by longshore workers.

On August 16, a community demonstration of a few thousand was called by Block the Boat against the Zim Piraeus. It delayed the ship’s arrival. The next 4 days much smaller spontaneous community pickets were organized and longshoremen honored the line. Zim tried everything to get the ship worked. Finally, after the third day they deceptively reported to Marine Traffic that she was sailing. She left the SSA terminal, headed out the Golden Gate to sea, but then made a Williamson turn and headed back to port, this time to Ports America.

Since there’s no contract in place some longshoremen feeling their power, refused to be shifted to the Zim ship behind the picket line. Others simply worked at a safe snail’s pace. One crane operator boasted barely any cargo was moved before the ship was forced to sail. Yet, the Israeli government disingenuously claimed cargo operations had been completed when the ship sailed. The Palestinian trade union federation commended that solidarity action. But, shamefully echoing the false Israeli statement minimizing the effect of the dock action, ILWU Communications Director Craig Merrilees appeased PMA and Oakland port officials saying "All the work was completed" before the ship left port at 8:45 a.m.” (SF Chronicle 8/20/14)

So, back to your Sept. 10, article “Grain Agreement Ends Lockouts in NW Ports” in Labor Notes, a magazine edited by Merrilees’ friend. You call the concessionary master grain agreement “a hard-won” contract. And you say that “Although the employers attempted to bring lower standards to the Pacific Northwest agreement, the ILWU blocked the majority of objectionable terms.” Both of these contentions obviously fly in the face of easy-to-document facts.

The truth is that the NW grain agreements ceded historic gains, gains that made the ILWU a powerhouse among unions internationally. Now, PMA companies salivating over the huge grain concessions, are acting aggressively in the longshore contract negotiations. If we don’t accede to their demands, they’re threatening to pull the tentative medical agreement or even lock us out. TRAPAC managers in LA were operating transtainers just as consoles are being run by grain terminal managers. TRAPAC, owned by Mitsui, is one of the EGT partners. Had ILWU taken strong action against EGT, the “standardizing” grain contract as Coast Committeman Sundet called it, we wouldn’t be facing such PMA’s threats today.

Yes, the NW lockout was ended but at what cost? ILWU’s history is to fully mobilize the ranks to drive off the scabs and in that way, end lockouts and win strikes. But in the NW grain lockout the McEllrath/Sundet leadership did nothing to stop the scabs who were taking our jobs and thumbing their noses at us as they crossed our picket lines. So, it was no surprise that they’d surrender hard-won gains to end the lockout.

The contract scuttles the union hiring hall, the heart of our union’s power, giving the employer control of the cargo hook or grain console and eliminates clerks. It allows the employer to use non-ILWU labor when work is stopped. It makes a mockery of our hard-won rights to honor picket lines, standby on safety, go to the monthly union meeting or honor the “Bloody Thursday” martyrs or any contract holiday. Maybe you don’t get the impact of these concessions because you never worked as a longshoreman or an ILWU member. You’re perspective comes from someone who used be a paid staffer at the International.

As you yourself admit the ILWU made major concessions: giving away control of the console (cargo handling operations) and the supercargo (No clerks jobs on the ships). The PNGHA got just about everything they’d demanded at the start of negotiations two years ago, using the EGT contract as their boilerplate. The danger of acceding to such demands by the grain monopolies was made clear in a signed leaflet by Local 10 and Local 8 retirees and members, veterans of many ILWU battles--Herb Mills, the late Leo Robinson, Howard Keylor, Larry Wright, Chris Colie, Delbert Green, Jack Mulcahy, Anthony Leviege and myself. (EGT-Longview Longshore Contract - Worst Ever!)

The real question is: Why did longshoremen in the grain ports vote 93.8% in December 2012 to reject the employers’ last, best and final offer which is essentially the same contract and now vote 88.4% to accept it? Portland Local 8, the largest grain port, voted down the Cargill/TEMCO deal (similar to the final grain agreement). And they tried to stem the tide of concessionary bargaining by holding rallies in the port but were blocked by the International. Local 21 members were not even given the right to vote on the concessions-setting EGT contract as is stipulated in the ILWU Constitution. You failed to report any of these pertinent facts. Could it be that after two years of negotiations and over one year of a lockout and scabbing, that longshore workers had no confidence in their International to stop the scabbing and get a better contract? Such lack of confidence in International leaderships was expressed in your Labor Notes article on the Machinists’ struggle against Boeing.

Starting with the EGT struggle, the ILWU International interceded to prevent mass mobilizations to stop the scabbing even though there was enthusiastic support for it from labor councils, unions and our allies in the Occupy movement. What frightened PMA’s McKenna and the ILWU bureaucrats most was longshoremen leaving work in the major Northwest ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland and shutting down those ports to protest the police attack on their sisters and brothers, including McEllrath, blocking a scab grain train in Longview. After that successful rank-and-file action there were no more mass mobilizations.

The power of ILWU on the West Coast docks lay dormant in the fight against EGT. McKenna and McEllrath were also frightened by the Occupy march of 30,000 into the port of Oakland protesting police brutality and in solidarity with the EGT struggle. The Occupy movement would’ve been our ally in this struggle but the International, made sure that didn’t happen.

The International, maintaining top down control, kept members isolated and intimidated. Disruption of a solidarity rally for the Local 21 Longview members’ struggle in the Portland SEIU union hall was led by ILWU bureaucrats. The following day the Seattle Labor Temple solidarity rally was chaired by Gabriel Prawl, a member of ILWU Local 52 and the A. Philip Randolph delegate to the King County Labor Council. ILWU members and an Occupy speaker were at the podium when it was physically broken up by ILWU officials, some members and staffers.

Paul, you had been an ILWU staffer and were there. Maybe you weren’t one of those who physically attacked the rally participants but you defended ILWU officials who did, at the subsequent Seattle Labor Council meeting. Where does Labor Notes stand on this egregious breach of union democracy?

A year later, when Vancouver and Portland longshore locals were locked out, they were pretty much on their own, valiantly picketing the scabs as best they could. A mass mobilization was never called by the International to stop the Gettier Security scabs at United Grain and Columbia Grain at the point of production.

In fact, Gettier scabs were first used in an ILWU dispute in 2010 against our locked out miners in Boron, California. The ILWU International warned striking miners that if they picketed scab borax containers on the LA/LB docks their strike fund money would be cut off. Not one scab box was stopped! ILWU signed a concessionary contract eliminating defined pensions for new miners, just as the Machinists’ bureaucrats did at Boeing. Although scabs were still working in the Boron mine, The Dispatcher declared a “victory” and it was dutifully reiterated in Labor Notes.

The key question in labor struggles is the picket line. The ILWU's Ten Guiding Principles addresses that question head on. “Labor solidarity means just that. Unions have to accept the fact that the solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work even behind a picket line. Every picket line must be respected as though it were our own.” The McEllrath-Sundet leadership has consistently violated this fundamental labor principal.

The picket line of LA/LB port truckers is a recent example of ILWU violating the Ten Guiding Principles by crossing a picket line of workers trying to organize a union to represent them against our same employers. We’ve heard the excuse that it was in retaliation against the Teamsters union which was backing the port truckers. The Teamsters union raided our warehouse local in Sacramento three years ago. This should have warranted a front page article in The Dispatcher, but there was not a word. Union officials directed longshore workers to cross our brother port truckers’ picket lines not only in LA/LB but in Oakland and other major ports where there was no Teamster backing. It has got to stop if we expect to gain support for ILWU’s contract struggle against PMA, especially since we’re no longer in the AFL-CIO.

Lastly, I think it’s fitting that your article appeared in Labor Notes which purports to cover the labor movement and support the rank and file. But, they refuse to publish an article in their newsletter signed by 14 ILWU and ILA longshore activists criticizing the ILWU International’s extending the contract for 3 days to allow the arbitrator to make a decision that the LA/LB truckers’ picket is not bona fide as per the PCLCD. [Labor Notes editor's note: That article was published online shortly after we received it, here:]. The union should’ve defied the arbitrator as we’ve done before and backed the port truckers right to picket and join any union they want ILWU, Teamsters or form their own union. But, longshore officials ordered the men to cross the picket line.

Here’s the other lie, apparently told to Labor Notes by ILWU’s Communications Director Craig Merrilees, which they bought hook, line and sinker: ILWU and PMA stopped negotiations and extended the contract so that negotiators could go to Portland to nail down a contract. The Journal of Commerce, the maritime bosses’ voice had a good laugh on that one, but it’s interesting that Labor Notes bought it.

Paul, I’ve seen the destruction of a once-great union, the National Maritime Union. It was the largest maritime union in the U.S. and the closest ally of the ILWU in the CIO. NMU president Joe Curran during the anti-communist McCarthy period fingered union leaders like Ferdinand Smith to the government who was deported to Jamaica and purged NMU members who had built the militant seamen’s union in the ‘30’s. Some like Blackie Meyers found safe haven in the ILWU. Curran, with no opposition left, became NMU’s corrupt “general” and loyal shipowners’ partner making deals and giving up the union’s power, while the rank and file suffered the loss of jobs, benefits and working conditions. He cynically called his big yacht “Born Free” and each new contract a “victory” as jobs and membership atrophied. I was a seaman and NMU member. Sadly, today the NMU doesn’t exist. It stands for “No More Union.” Can that happen to ILWU? Not if the ranks wake up and change direction.

Jack Heyman #8780 Local 10 (retired), October 18, 2014