Longshore union in Pacific Northwest abandons locked-out workers

Nearly a hundred dockworkers in Oregon and Washington remain locked out by two grain hauling companies after a vote last December rejected a concessions-filled contract proposal.

In December 2012, nearly 3,000 members in five locals of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) rejected a “last, best and final” offer from the Pacific Northwest Grain Haulers Association (PNGHA), with almost 94 percent of ballots going against the agreement.

Initially, the employers’ alliance notified the ILWU that its members were “welcome to come to work under the new terms and conditions of employment.” The ILWU responded by forcing the rank and file to return to work under conditions that give the companies millions of dollars in labor productivity gains and which they had just overwhelmingly rejected.

However, Columbia Grain and United Grain, two of the members of the PNGHA, have since locked out all union dockworkers.

Citing an alleged act of sabotage by a union official, in February, Mitsui Corporation, the owner of United Grain, locked out 44 workers of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, Washington. In May, Columbia Grain, which owns Marubeni, locked out about 50 workers in Portland, Oregon. Columbia alleges that workers were engaging in slowdowns, work-to-rule and other actions.

Both companies have since been using scab labor provided by the notorious strikebreaking firm, Gettier Security, to operate the terminals.

One terminal operator, TEMCO, which owns two terminals covered by the agreement, broke with the association during the voting in December and arrived at a separate “tentative” agreement. In February, the ILWU ratified a five-year interim bargaining agreement with TEMCO, with the stipulation that it will be revised to incorporate concessions made in any eventual contract with PNGHA.

The contract extends shifts to 12 hours and replaces union supercargo clerks with management personnel, which are some of the same demands made by the PNGHA. However, it retains the union’s role in workplace grievances and the union hiring hall.

In December, the core demand of the grain haulers was that the ILWU provide the same “advantageous” work rules conceded to the newly opened grain terminal EGT (Export Grain Terminal) in Longview, Washington. Among these are the ability to schedule 12-hour shifts with no overtime, maintain work with supervisors and non-union labor during work stoppages, and fire anyone on the hiring list at the “sole discretion of the employer” with no recourse to arbitration. The EGT agreement also surrendered the union hiring hall, a gain extracted in the mass struggles of the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike.

Speaking at the time, ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet endorsed the EGT agreement, stating, “The ILWU contract with EGT is key to standardization of the grain export industry on the West Coast, particularly with respect to labor costs.” He continued, “This standardization…guarantees profit throughout the market chain.”

The EGT concessions were similar to ones given earlier at the Kalama Grain Terminal in Washington.

The ILWU has responded to the lockouts by United Grain and Columbia Grain, both of which are Japanese-owned companies, with a blatantly nationalist campaign, portraying the struggle as one of American-owned companies friendly to their workers versus foreign-owned companies. The ILWU is seeking to divert workers’ attention from the industry-wide assault on their living standards and the role of the union in allowing this to happen by insisting that the US-based corporation TEMCO is committed to negotiating a “fair contract,” in contrast to its Japanese counterparts.

ILWU International President Rober McEllrath stated, “It’s pure greed that’s stopping these profitable foreign grain merchants from reaching a win-win agreement with workers as their American counterpart TEMCO has done.”

The ILWU’s criticisms of “foreign grain merchants” has nothing to do with protecting workers’ living standards and working conditions. In the interests of defending the profit interests of US corporations, the ILWU is prepared to give major concessions to American-owned companies, as it has done in the recent past with the agreement at EGT, which is majority owned by the US-based Bunge Ltd. The PNGHA is simply demanding the same givebacks.

The ILWU is primarily concerned that the union’s role in the industry and dues base is protected in the new contract. It sees the promotion of “American competitiveness” as the best way to do so.

As the lockout continues, the ILWU is working to betray and isolate the workers at Columbia Grain and United Grain. The road to the pickets at Columbia Grain winds past multiple terminals where hundreds of ILWU members continue to load and unload ships 24 hours a day. The river pilots that guide the grain ships down the Columbia River are members of the Masters, Mates & Pilots union, affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s Association and the AFL-CIO.

Nothing has been done to mobilize these workers in defense of the locked-out longshoremen at Columbia and United Grain. Through isolation, the aim of the union bureaucracy is to wear down the opposition among workers to the concessions being demanded of them.

Reporters for the WSWS spoke to dockworkers in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.

In Portland, David remarked, “It’s a global economy, that’s what we are dealing with here. They keep us separate for a reason—it’s a divide and conquer strategy. This contract puts us behind, and it is not just us, it is the working class. A united front is necessary, perhaps a revolution. The union is not always telling us the truth; it is sugar coated.” On the strikebreakers he explained, “The rumor is that the company is spending $900,000 a month on strikebreakers.”

Frank stated, “It’s only the poor and rich today. I’m sure EGT was a brainchild of all the grain handlers. It doesn’t take much forethought to go from A to B—it doesn’t take much to go from the concessions at Kalama Grain Terminal to concessions at EGT.

The workers in Seattle and Vancouver were angry at the continued lockout and expressed their lack of confidence on the protest methods used by the ILWU. However, they were afraid to speak freely, as the union prohibited workers from talking to reporters.