ILWU NW Grain Officials Defend Concession Contract That Gives Up Hiring Hall “But this is a rank-and-file union, and we had a rank-and-file campaign. We were on the docks 24 hours a day, we had water pickets on the Snake River, and we put real economic p

ILWU NW Grain Officials Defend Concession Contract That Gives Up Hiring Hall “But this is a rank-and-file union, and we had a rank-and-file campaign. We were on the docks 24 hours a day, we had water pickets on the Snake River, and we put real economic pressure on the employers.”

Grain Agreement Ends Lockouts in Northwest Ports

September 10, 2014 / Paul Bigman

Longshore union members in Portland and Vancouver, Washington were locked out for over a year by grain shippers after the workers refused unacceptable contracts. A new agreement means they're back to work. Photo: Doug Geisler (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A hard-won contract settlement has ended the 15- and 18-month lockouts of two Longshore locals by grain companies in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Columbia River and Puget Sound ports move over a quarter of all U.S. grain exports, including almost half of all wheat.

The master grain contract was approved 88.4 percent by members of the five ILWU locals affected, after 80 contentious bargaining sessions spread out over two years.

Although the employers attempted to bring lower standards to the Pacific Northwest agreement, the ILWU blocked the majority of objectionable terms.


Grain employers were beside themselves in July when Washington’s governor stopped providing police escorts for state grain inspectors to cross ILWU picket lines in Vancouver, the site of the 18-month lockout. The companies then asked the local sheriff to provide security, but he refused, saying “We have never, and as long as I’m the sheriff never will, act as an escort to a private company involved in a labor dispute.”

So inspectors didn’t cross the lines, holding up shipments. The pileup threatened to worsen when fall corn and soybean crops arrived.

For cargo bound for the locked-out ports, “water pickets” meant that grain ships had problems getting escorts from tugboat workers who are members of the ILWU’s marine division, the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. The International Transport Workers Federation mobilized dockworkers globally to be on the lookout for grain shipments from Vancouver and Portland. “We wouldn’t have been back at the table without that solidarity from our brothers and sisters,” said Troy Mosteller, secretary of locked-out Local 8 in Portland.

What Happened at Longview?

ILWU has a separate contract with EGT, a grain company in Longview, Washington that refused in 2011 to use labor from Local 21 at its new grain terminal, leading to militant picket lines and international solidarity. The town was the site of notable civil disobedience by the local: they occupied the grain terminal and dumped tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of grain on the railroad tracks. In the end, their contract contained painful concessions, but secured the work.

Brad Clark, a former Local 4 president arrested for “criminal trespass” during the course of the Vancouver lockout, says that while the new grain contract was somewhat of a retreat, it was “far better” than the EGT agreement. But, he argued, the EGT contract was a real victory, since it brought new jurisdiction to the union. The EGT agreement brought 47 new jobs to the Longview local, according to Max Vekich, an ILWU executive board member.


The bottom line for the ILWU was that the contract maintains unionized grain terminals in the U.S., said Roger Boespflug, a former Local 23 President who represented his local in the grain negotiations. He acknowledged that the contract does include some setbacks.

The west coast fight was never about money, the employers never even proposed cuts. In fact, the 46-month agreement includes first year wage increases of $1.53 to $2.22 per hour, depending on classification, with modest bumps in subsequent years. First year wages range from $35.25 to $37.25 for registered longshoremen, with a $27.50 rate for non-registered casual workers.

A key demand from the employers–which the ILWU never seriously considered–was that in the event of three illegal work stoppages, the employer could subcontract the work. Failing to gain traction on that proposal, the employers then put forward a demand that should a work stoppage be found to be illegal, the union would pay $1 million plus damages. This was also beaten back by the union.

In the end, the ILWU did accept a significant concession permitting management personnel to do bargaining unit work during a work stoppage. But if the stoppage is found to have been legal, the union workers will be paid for the lost work. Nonetheless, management might be able to get the work done, which reduces union workers’ leverage in a walkout.

This might be harder for management than it sounds. Boespflug said that all of the work at the grain terminals is ILWU jurisdiction: taking the grain off the vessel, storing it in the elevator or moving it to the rails. A dispute involving any of the ILWU grain workers would result in all work stopping. If management attempted to do any of the work, they would need the personnel and the skill to do it all.

Another concession gives console operator work over to non-union grain company employees. Console operators start the equipment, and separate, weigh, and control the flow of the grain from the vessel to the terminal.

“It’s always hard to give up jurisdiction,” said Boespflug, but he said he expects that work to be automated within a few years. However, these are strategic jobs whose power outweighs their numbers, literally controlling the flow of goods into the ship.

In addition, the new agreement eliminates ILWU jurisdiction for supercargos, those workers who supervise the loading and unloading of the vessel.
According to Max Vekich, a member of the union’s executive board and a member of the Puget Sound marine clerks’ Local 52, the supercargo work had been ILWU, but done under the coastwise longshore contract, rather than the grain contract. (That contract expired July 1 and is still being negotiated.) Now the supercargo work will be done non-union by the grain shippers directly, although Vekich believes the company doesn’t have the in-house capacity to do the work, so it may return to ILWU members.

The contract also allows a reduction in the number of workers on a vessel for a two-spout operation, from 5 workers to 4. The sub-par Longview-area contracts with grain shippers EGT and Peavey have only three workers, and the employers had pushed for three longshore workers plus a working foreman.


While the impact of these cuts will not be great in the Washington ports, Mosteller said that grain is a much larger portion of the work in Portland, where most of the no votes came from. Mosteller believes this reflects a concern in Portland that the local may lose a more jobs there than in the Washington ports.

Some within the ILWU believe that a stronger mobilization might have achieved different results. Mark Downs, a veteran activist on the Seattle docks who retired after 40 years as a longshoreman, points to the ILWU’s militant history, as well as more recent labor solidarity among longshoremen, Teamsters, mariners, and rail workers that aided port truckers. He recalled a series of actions by Pacific Northwest transportation unions to aid port truckers in 1999, contrasting that unified action with what he felt was inadequate mobilization in the grain fight, as well as what he saw as a lack of support from the ILWU for port truckers in the past few months.

But, Downs said, given the situation by end of negotiations, the “yes” vote was the right move.

Despite the ILWU’s recent disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, the workers got strong support from both the Washington State Labor Council and the Oregon AFL-CIO.

None of the local leaders with whom I spoke thought that more public mobilization would have won a better contract. There was a general consensus that the contract was, as with all ILWU struggles, a reflection of their internal solidarity and militancy.

“Not everything we did [to win the contract] may have been apparent to those outside the union,” said Brad Clark, a former Local 4 president in Vancouver. “But this is a rank-and-file union, and we had a rank-and-file campaign. We were on the docks 24 hours a day, we had water pickets on the Snake River, and we put real economic pressure on the employers.”

The ILWU leadership has accepted a deal that will further cripple their union.

The Latest Defeat
by Robert Brenner
The ILWU leadership has accepted a deal that will further cripple their union.

The tentative agreement reached between the ILWUand the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA) contains no surprises. It would impose a major reduction in working conditions and shop floor power, the latest in a cascade of defeats that started with the signing of the union’s historic contract with Export Grain Terminal (EGT) atLongview, Washington in February 2012.
Nor does it bode well for the 20,000 members of the union’s Longshore division, whose contract with the Pacific Maritime Association expired on June 30 and whose fate is being decided in ongoing bargaining.

The negotiated agreement closely mirrors the disastrous contract that EGT imposed on the ILWU. The giant corporations of the PNGHA had, from the outset, demanded from the ILWU the same deal as it gave EGT, in order to keep labor costs low and remain competitive with its technologically advanced rival. They are now about to achieve it.

The ILWU’s accord with the PNGHA would give back to the employers virtually all of the impressive gains in work rules and shop floor powers that the union had wrung from them during many decades of struggle in northwest grain, as well as in longshore.

The union would lose control over the hiring hall, the foundation of its power. The companies would get to hire from a list of workers that they had pre-approved.

Gone would be the eight-hour, even the ten-hour day. The employers would now be free to impose twelve-hour shifts with no overtime. They would take over the control room, from which managers would oversee and regulate the entire process of production. They also would assume the strategic job of the supercargo, charged with overseeing the loading of the ship, which had hitherto always been held by the union. Management would, in addition, get the authority to set the skill requirements for the job of millwright, whose task it is to build and repair machines, and by this means gain the potential to exclude union workers.

The employers would gain the right to prevent work stoppages. The ILWU would maintain its traditional rights to honor legitimate picket lines, to attend stop work meetings, and refuse to labor under unsafe conditions. But this would be rendered meaningless by the employers’ right to use its own managers in place of ILWU members whenever ILWU members exercised those rights.

The ILWU leadership has thus accepted, after a year and half in which its members were locked out and replaced by scabs, roughly the same deal that the PNGHA originally proposed as early as September 2012, then imposed at United Grain, Columbia Grain, and Louis Dreyfuss the following December.

The ILWU had secured, on a temporary basis, a highly concessionary but somewhat more worker-friendly agreement with TEMCO, the joint venture headed up by the Cargill Corporation (which had defected for the time being from the PNGHA). But, as per its contract with the ILWU, TEMCO will now revert to the more employer-friendly accord secured by the other PNGHA members. Kalama Export, the last of the major grain export corporations of the region, had long ago secured the profoundly substandard contract that had served as the template for EGT. This means that pretty much the same degraded terms will now apply more or less uniformly across the Pacific Northwest grain handling industry.

That the union leadership has meekly accepted almost the same offer it rejected at the start of negotiations two years ago was in fact quite predictable. After all, the ILWU had refused to mobilize its power to stand up to the grain-exporting giants.

The International relied essentially on a strategy of going to the NLRB and the courts, while uttering pathetic nationalistic slurs against the foreign-owned corporations. At no time did it try to stop scabs from working, and it ran roughshod over every initiative by the rank-and-file to organize direct action to that end.

How could there have been any other outcome, especially against wealthy multinational corporations bent on obtaining the lowest possible costs to make the highest possible profits in the spectacularly expanding grain export trade with China and other East Asian countries?

In all likelihood the International’s terrible contract will be ratified, as the ILWU leadership has worn down and demoralized the membership for the better part of a year and a half, forcing them to stand by helplessly as scabs did their work. The International did not even consider building the sort of broad cross-union and extra-union solidarity for mass direct action that had enabled the small, isolated Longview local to put real fear into the heart of the EGT Leviathan — before the ILWU leadership itself brutally undercut it.

Instead, the International has proved its worth to the PMA, pulling the rug out from under a contingent of impoverished port truckers at the very moment ILWU members had begun to honor their picket line and close down several terminals at the Port of Los Angeles. The International justifies this betrayal of its own supposed principles by claiming the Teamsters Union needed to be taught a lesson for encroaching on its jurisdiction at a warehouse in northern California. But with such a weak and self-centered leadership, it would be surprising if the membership saw any alternative to acceding to the concession-ridden contract.

As with EGT in the recent past and no doubt PMA in the near future, the ILWU leadership is demonstrating yet again how a union hierarchy, structurally insulated from the outcome of class struggle — they don’t work on the shop floor but are materially supported by rank-and-file dues — can blithely oversee disastrous defeat for its membership while escaping scot-free.

Also read Robert Brenner and Suzi Weissman’s longform examination of the ILWU’s historic crossroads.