PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Members of the longshore union are voting on what Pacific Northwest grain shippers describe as their "last, best and final" contract offer. The proposal is expected to be rejected, setting the table for port disruptions that could slow the shipment of wheat, corn and soybeans to Asia.
The ballots are being cast Friday and Saturday at union dispatch halls in Portland and Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash. The union will release the results by noon on Dec. 24.
"The vote is in the hands of nearly 3,000 men and women who have made these elevators successful by working in conditions that are not only strenuous, but also hazardous," said Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
The union negotiating committee has recommended that members vote 'no' on the proposal. The last contract expired Sept. 30.
More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports move through grain terminals on the Willamette River and Puget Sound. The dispute involves six of those terminals that operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU:
-- Japan-based Marubeni Corp. (Columbia Grain in Portland)
-- Japan-based Mitsui & Co. (United Grain in Vancouver)
-- Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities (grain elevators in Seattle and Portland)
-- United States-based Cargill and CHS Inc. (Temco elevators in Tacoma and Portland).
Salary and benefits have not been the holdup during talks. Rather, the owners want to implement workplace rules they consider more advantageous.
The other Northwest grain terminals -- based in the Washington cities of Longview and Kalama -- operate under separate agreements with the ILWU. Representatives from the six terminals involved in this negotiation say they are at a competitive disadvantage because the longshoremen at their facilities have more favorable rules than those in Kalama and Longview.
The contract offer, as first reported by The Oregonian, would take away some perks and grievance procedures. Other concessions include letting employers go to court to end work stoppages immediately and allowing supervisors to perform work during health-and-safety disputes, or if the union hiring hall can't supply enough qualified grain handlers.
"The current Northwest Grainhandler's Agreement has been productive for several decades, but the multinational employer came to negotiations demanding more than 750 concessions from local workers," Sargent said in a statement.
Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the terminal owners, declined to say Friday what action the owners will take if the union rejects the offer.
The Coast Guard expects longshoremen would protest in boats on the Columbia and Willamette rivers if a lockout occurs. The agency has established a safety zone, effective through Jan. 16, around all inbound and outbound grain-shipment vessels at the Columbia Grain and United Grain terminals.
Sources with knowledge of the industry have said Columbia Grain and United Grain took the toughest stance during contract talks. One of the four companies, Temco, the joint venture between Cargill and CHS, was omitted from a Dec. 17 statement in which Columbia Grain, United Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities said they were rejecting the union's most recent offer.
McCormick declined to say why Temco was not included in the statement. Cargill spokesman Mark Klein also would not provide clarity.
"We typically don't discuss ongoing contract negotiations, any aspect of it," Klein said.