By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND -- A labor dispute has prompted another Northwest grain handler to lock out workers from the longshoremen's union, but the facility doesn't anticipate a disruption in grain exports.
"The expectation is they will continue operating," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for several grain handlers involved in the dispute.
Columbia Grain in Portland, Ore., locked out longshoremen on May 4 in reaction to work slowdowns, but managers and temporary workers have since resumed operations, he said.
The facility is usually operated with 15-20 longshoremen per shift, with two shifts per day, McCormick said.
United Grain in Vancouver, Wash., which locked out the union earlier this year, has been able to conduct normal operations with a far smaller number of managers and non-union workers, he said.
The grain handlers have locked out union members at a time when there's not a large volume of exports, which decreases the overall workload of longshoremen who are dependent on ship traffic, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
However, the export facilities will likely feel increased pressure to reach a deal with longshoremen as this year's wheat harvest approaches, because it will be difficult for them to handle large grain volumes with a reduced workforce, the source said.
While United Grain locked out workers due to alleged sabotage of equipment, Columbia Grain is citing a deliberately slowed pace of work by longshoremen.
For example, union members have been using "work-to-rule" tactics -- in which they meticulously follow regulations to impede operations -- and requesting that electricians and other specialists repeatedly inspect equipment, McCormick said.
The slowdown tactics have been ongoing since last December, when the grain facility imposed a contract that had been rejected by a majority of affected longshoremen, he said.
"It's been escalating, and it's the escalation that has triggered the decision" to lock out the union, McCormick said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union did not comment on the slowdown allegations in a statement issued by the organization, but claimed that Columbia Grain had planned the lockout all along.
The company hired replacement workers last autumn in anticipation of the action, "showing that the company never intended to reach an agreement," the statement said.
"Rather than reach a fair agreement, the company has hired an out-of-state strike-breaking firm, attorneys and a publicist to make allegations against local workers who simply want to do our jobs and support our community," said Bruce Holte, a local ILWU leader, in a statement.
The controversy between the longshoremen and the grain handlers centers on work rules, rather than salary or benefits.
Columbia Grain, United Grain, and Louis Dreyfus Commodities claim that a previous deal reached between ILWU and the new EGT export terminal in Longview, Wash., offers superior terms that give that facility an advantage over competitors.
The longshoremen's union, meanwhile, said the grain handlers are seeking terms that would jeopardize safety, unlike an agreement that TEMCO -- another facility -- reached with the ILWU earlier this year for facilities in Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash.
Agricultural interests have been concerned about the dispute, as a significant amount of wheat and other grains are exported from Northwest terminals.