* Grain shippers accuse union of slowing operations
* Company has clashed with union over contract
* Workers say Columbia Grain never wanted an agreement
By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, May 4 Grain shipper Columbia Grain on
Saturday locked out longshore workers in the Pacific Northwest
in the latest escalation of a simmering labor dispute.
The company, owned by Japanese trader Marubeni Corp
, said it took action because members of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWC) were
purposefully slowing down operations at its terminal at the Port
of Portland, a key outlet for exports to Asia.
Columbia Grain said it had contingency plans to keep
operations running during the lockout.
"With bargaining stalled and the longshore workers engaging
in 'inside game' tactics, including slowdowns, work-to-rule, and
demands for repeated inspections of the same equipment - all
designed to negatively impact Columbia Grain's operations - we
have decided that a lockout is our best alternative," the
company said in a statement.
A contract between the union and the Pacific Northwest Grain
Handlers Association, a collective negotiating group that
includes Columbia Grain, United Grain Corp, Louis Dreyfus and
TEMCO, expired in September.
The two sides were unable to come to a contract agreement so
terminal operators late last year declared an impasse and
imposed the terms of their final contract offer.
TEMCO, a joint venture of U.S. agribusinesses Cargill Inc
and CHS Inc, said in February that it reached a tentative
agreement with the ILWU on its own. ILWU-represented employees
at the Columbia Grain facility and the two Dreyfus elevators
continued to work under the company's final contract offer
The region's nine export terminals are a critical outlet for
U.S. grain exports. Nearly half of U.S. wheat exports and about
a quarter of all U.S. grain and oilseed exports leave the
country via the Pacific Northwest.
Columbia Grain has 42.5 million bushels of storage capacity
and exports nearly 160 million bushels of wheat, barley, corn
and soybeans through a state-of-the-art grain elevator at
Terminal 5 in Portland, according to Marubeni.
The union on Saturday said Columbia Grain never wanted to
reach an agreement with the longshore workers and that the
company hired replacement workers last fall while negotiations
were in their early stages.
"Marubeni-Columbia Grain has done what it's wanted to do all
along, and locked out local workers who have made this company
profitable for decades," said Bruce Holte, president of ILWU
Local 8 and a Port of Portland Commissioner.
The union in March filed an unfair labor practice charge
against United Grain Corp, a unit of Japanese trading company
Mitsui & Co, after its members were locked out of the
company's Vancouver, Washington, grain export terminal.