Dispute simmers on the docks
No strikes materialize; grain continues to flow
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The flow of grain through Northwest export terminals has been uninterrupted since grain handlers imposed a labor contract rejected by the longshoremen's union nearly a month ago.
"At the moment, it seems to be quiet," said Pat McCormick, a spokesman for several grain handlers in the region.
The prospect of labor disruptions at several export terminals worried farmers and grain elevators who could have faced a backed-up pipeline of wheat and other crops.
However, no strikes or lockouts have materialized since the labor contract was unilaterally imposed by several handlers in late December, which could indicate the conflict is headed for the legal arena.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union may have decided that it's not in the best interest of workers to strike against the contract, which members resoundingly rejected in a vote late last year, said Henry Drummonds, a professor specializing in labor law at Lewis & Clark Law School.
Initiating an "economic strike" at this point could put longshoremen at risk of being permanently replaced by the grain handlers, he said. "It's been used less and less in American labor relations."
A spokeswoman for the ILWU did not respond to requests for comment from Capital Press.
The longshoremen's union has six months since the contract's enactment to file a charge of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that oversees such conflicts.
If the regional office of the NLRB finds there is a reasonable basis for such a charge, it can then issue a complaint and prosecute the case against the grain handlers on behalf of the union.
If an administrative law judge with NLRB decides the grain handlers prematurely imposed the contract without having reached a "bargaining impasse," that would be considered an unfair labor practice.
Grain handlers could then be ordered back to the negotiating table.
Such a finding would also allow the longshoremen to engage in an "unfair labor practice strike," which carries less risk because the handlers wouldn't have the right to replace workers permanently, Drummonds said.
"The employer has to take you back when you're ready to go back to work," he said.
Deciding if a bargaining impasse has been reached involves a "complicated area of the law" but is ultimately based on whether there's a reasonable basis that a compromise can still be reached, Drummonds said.
An administrative law judge would consider the history of negotiations, how often the parties met, and how much their proposals differed, he said. "It's not a completely subjective inquiry."
The dispute between longshoremen and the grain handlers relates to work rules, not wages and benefits.
Grain handlers have said they want more flexibility in hiring and the ability to use grain elevator employees to help load ships. The ILWU has said their contract undermines safety.
A previous contract between the grain handlers and longshoremen expired in late September 2012, leading to concerns about potential export disruptions as the parties negotiated but were unable to reach a deal.
The owners of four export terminals in Vancouver and Seattle, Wash., and Portland, Ore., imposed the labor contract on Dec. 27 even though more than 90 percent of the union's members had voted against it.
One company, Temco, has split off from the other owners to negotiate separately with longshoremen who work at two terminals in Portland and Tacoma, Wash.