* Grain shipper accuses union of slowing operations
* Company has clashed with workers over contract terms
* Workers say Columbia Grain never wanted an agreement
* Protesters gather outside export terminal
By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon, May 4 Grain shipper Columbia
Grain on Saturday locked out longshore workers in the U.S.
Pacific Northwest in the latest escalation of a simmering labor
The company, owned by Japanese trader Marubeni Corp
, said it took action because members of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were
purposefully slowing 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.
At least 50 workers gathered in front of the terminal gates
on Saturday afternoon in a peaceful protest against the lockout.
Some carried blue and yellow picket signs that blasted Columbia
Grain as "UNFAIR."
The protesters set up canopies for shade during an
unseasonably warm day and were distributing supplies of bottled
water, snacks and fried chicken.
"We've been locked out," Bruce Holte, president of ILWU
Local 8, told Reuters at the protest.
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 declared an impasse late last year, 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
Columbia Grain said on Saturday that bargaining has stalled.
Longshore workers are "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," according to the company.
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 owner Marubeni.
The union on Saturday said Columbia Grain never wanted to
reach an agreement with the longshore workers and had hired
replacement workers last fall while negotiations were still in
their early stages.
"Marubeni is hurting the Northwest's economy by putting
local union workers out on the street instead of allowing us to
go to work," Holte said in a statement.
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.