Critics claim contract weakens longshoremen’s union

Longshoremen picket at the United Grain Co. export terminal in Vancouver, Wash., earlier this year. The union last month ratified a contract with grain exporters.

Two critics of a recent labor contract between the longshoremen’s union and grain exporters claim the deal weakens the union and reduces the threat of shipping disruptions.

“This is an example of what happens when you send in amateurs to negotiate with professionals,” said Jim Tessier, a labor consultant who’s critical of the agreement.

While bad news for the longshoremen, he said, the deal is a boon for agricultural shippers who want to ensure a continuous flow of grain to Asia and elsewhere.

“It’s not a money thing. It’s a control thing,” said Tessier.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union recently ratified an agreement with three grain exporters — Columbia Grain, United Grain and Louis Dreyfus — that own several facilities in the Northwest.

A previous labor contract had expired in 2012, resulting in two years of tense negotiations and a lockout of workers at two of the export terminals.

The parties didn’t specify the details of the new deal, but Capital Press spoke with Tessier and a labor history professor, Robert Brenner, who say they independently obtained copies of the contract from longshoremen.

Both said the longshoremen’s union has ceded power to the grain handlers by giving them more control over hiring, which may also undermine their negotiating position in broader talks with container terminals along the West Coast.

“The ability to control hiring is a way to bend the workforce to your needs,” said Brenner, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Specifically, the new contract states the “Employer has the right to select registered employees who are qualified as steady employees, without regard to seniority provided they are selected from the Union,” according to a copy obtained by Tessier.

Steady employees are those longshoremen who are assured of regular work from the grain handlers.

Jennifer Sargent, spokesperson for ILWU, disagreed with the Tessier and Brenner’s interpretation of the contract.

“The union doesn’t choose any steady men anywhere and never has. It’s unfortunate that the Capital Press is basing an article on inaccurate information from sources who have no experience whatsoever in the grain industry,” she said in a statement.

The ILWU did not respond to multiple requests by Capital Press to discuss the specifics of the contract.

Tessier said the ILWU was “playing semantic games” in its statement. He said the union did not previously pick steady men, but the longshoremen themselves signed up to make themselves available for such positions at the ILWU dispatch hall.

Now, the employer has freer reign to choose steady men, he said. “It’s taking the dispatch hall out of the picture.”

Grain handlers can now avoid hiring steady longshoremen who complain about work conditions or other issues, said Brenner.

If a grain handler perceives a longshoremen as a “malcontent,” it can simply select a more amenable worker for steady employment, he said.

The agreement has also diminished the impact of work stoppages by longshoremen, said Brenner. “The union has given up one of its biggest powers.”

While the deal does allow longshoremen to stop work due to a health or safety dispute and to refuse to cross the picket lines of other unions, the contract also states “the Employer may use supervisory employees to perform the work at issue.”

In effect, the agreement means that there will be no interruption in grain flow due to longshoremen honoring picket lines or stopping work due to safety disputes, Brenner and Tessier said.

“The employers seem to have absolute control of the system,” said Tessier.

The longshoremen yielded on these points due to an earlier deal with the owners of the EGT export terminal in Longview, Wash., which the other grain handlers saw as offering a competitive advantage to the employer, he said.

The other grain handlers demanded similar concessions in their own labor contract, which they have now obtained, said Tessier.

It’s difficult for the union to sign such provisions with some employers and not others, which will likely reduce the ILWU’s leverage in labor contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, he said. Tessier is a former PMA employee.

The PMA represents employers who run container terminals at 29 West Coast ports that employ 20,000 longshoremen.

Tessier said the ILWU would have been better off walking away from the relatively small number of grain jobs to avoid jeopardizing the contract with container terminals.

Brenner said he wouldn’t be surprised if the longshoremen’s union ultimately makes similar concessions in a deal with the PMA.

Such an outcome would be dangerous for the ILWU, particularly since export terminals are increasingly mechanized and require fewer employees, he said. “I think the long term future is very bleak for the workers.”

The grain handlers are also not discussing the specifics of the contract.

“Reaching an agreement was obviously not easy, but hard work from both management and union negotiators produced a fair agreement providing well-paid employment to our longshore workers and allowing terminal operators to remain competitive,” according to a statement from their spokesman.

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