Threat of labor unrest at US Northwest ports averted despite dispute
By Laura L. Myers, ReutersSEATTLE -- The threat of imminent labor unrest at four U.S. Pacific Northwest ports was averted on Wednesday as the dockworkers union said its members would stay on the job despite “substandard” contract terms being imposed unilaterally by grain shippers.
December 28, 2012, 12:54 am TWN
Both sides in the stalemate left open the door to further negotiations. A spokesman for the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service told Reuters the agency was in contact on Wednesday with the parties.
The shipping companies declared a formal impasse in stalled contract talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) days after nearly 3,000 rank-and-file union members voted overwhelmingly to reject management's “last, best and final” offer.
The contracts at issue cover workers at six of the nine grain terminals operating in Puget Sound and along the Columbia River that handle more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports.
In calling an impasse after a last, brief round of talks on Wednesday, the shipping companies also said they planned to implement terms of their latest proposal, effective at 6 a.m. local time on Thursday.
The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents the shipping companies and grain terminals they own, stressed the move was not the “lockout” that was widely expected after management's proposal failed to win union agreement.
Under a lockout, employers typically bar union members from returning to work, and seek to keep operations running with nonunion replacement workers, until a settlement is reached.
Speculation that grain shippers might take such action was fueled by union reports that the companies had hired a Delaware-based company that specializes in providing security and replacement workers in labor disputes.
The U.S. Coast Guard said in recent days it was prepared 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 labor tensions.
“This is not a lockout,” association spokesman Pat McCormick said in a statement. “The companies informed the union that ILWU members are welcome to come to work under the new terms and conditions of employment.