* Stalemate fuels speculation of possible lockout of workers
* Coast Guard prepares for potential waterfront labor unrest
* Union calls on grain shippers to return to bargaining
(Adds details, background, byline)
By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE, Dec 24 Dockworkers at four ports in the
U.S. Pacific Northwest voted overwhelmingly to reject a "final"
contract offer presented by grain shippers, their union said on
Monday, setting the stage for a possible labor clash that could
hamper exports from the region.
The stalemate in contract talks, and management's failure to
win approval of its offer, fueled speculation that the shipping
companies might move to impose a lockout of union members in a
bid to keep grain terminals operating with replacement workers.
There was no immediate comment from the Pacific Northwest
Grain Handlers Association, which represents the shipping
companies and the grain terminals they own, on the outcome of
the union vote.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has
said the shippers have hired a Delaware-based company that
specializes in providing security and replacement workers in
The U.S. Coast Guard said last week it was preparing to
establish buffer zones to keep union-related protests from
interfering with navigation around two of the ports seen as most
likely to be caught up in waterborne labor unrest.
The possibility of a labor showdown in the Northwest comes
as ports along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts brace for a
separate strike threatened for Dec. 30 by union dock workers
unless shippers extend their contract.
Weeks ago, harbor clerks and union longshoremen honoring
their picket lines staged an eight-day walkout in Southern
California at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,
idling much of the nation's busiest cargo-shipping complex.
Rich Austin, co-chairman of the negotiating committee for
the ILWU, said in a statement the union remains "committed to
reaching a fair agreement" and called for grain exporters to
"return to the negotiating table."
Both sides have declined to discuss in detail the points of
contention that have blocked a settlement.
Votes on a contract proposal that management called its
"last, best and final" offer were cast Friday and Saturday by
nearly 3,000 union members in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle,
Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington.
According to the final tally announced on Monday, 93.8
percent of those voting disapproved the proposal, as recommended
by union leaders, and 6.2 percent voted to accept it.
The proposed contract covers six of the nine grain terminals
operating in the Puget Sound and along the Columbia River that
the industry says account for more than a quarter of all U.S.
grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports.
SWITCHING FROM BARGES TO TRAINS?
Waterfront labor strife in the Northwest would compound an
existing slowdown in U.S. grain exports caused by the low water
levels on the Mississippi River by making it harder for shippers
to meet expectations set by the U.S. Agriculture Department,
said Bob Utterback, of Utterback Marketing Services, a brokerage
Pendleton Grain Growers, for example, the largest
cooperative grain dealer in Oregon, will likely overhaul its
shipping plans to send more wheat, corn and soybeans to ports
via railroad instead of barges, said Jason Middleton, director
of grain operations for the cooperative.
Such a switch could slow shipments, most of which normally
are sent up the Columbia River en route to Asia.
The old contact for dockworkers at the six terminals expired
on Sept. 30, but under terms that remain in effect for the time
being, regular work shifts for ILUW members end at 3 p.m. local
time Monday, and union workers have the day off on Tuesday for
the Christmas holiday.
The shipping companies say the chief issue is "beneficial
work rules" that will give them a cost advantage over
competitors. A spokesman last week said shippers were seeking
the same workplace rules and terms the union had agreed to after
lengthy and contentious labor talks with EGT, an exporter that
opened a new terminal last year in Longview, Washington.
The ILWU cited 750 changes it said the companies were
seeking to impose on labor contract terms that have stood for
more than 80 years.
The Portland Oregonian newspaper reported last month that
the companies' latest contract offer heavily favors the shippers
by eliminating many longshoremen's perks such as 30-minutes' pay
for working six minutes into an hour and compensation while
conducting union business at work. It also would abolish
grievance procedures for workers who oppose equipment
(Reporting by Laura L. Myers in Seattle; Additional reporting
by Christine Stebbins and Tom Polansek in Chicago, and Teresa
Carson in Portland, Ore.; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by
Bob Burgdorfer and Leslie Adler)