Both sides settle in for long legal battle over grain terminal labor dispute

2011-08-13T21:30:00Z 2012-06-28T18:36:56Z Both sides settle in for long legal battle over grain terminal labor disputeBy Erik Olson / The Daily News Longview Daily News
August 13, 2011 9:30 pm  • 

According to its owner, the new $200 million grain terminal at the Port of Longview will be the most efficient export dock on the West Coast, able to unload a 110-unit train in less than four hours and fill a giant grain freighter in less than a day.

It's so highly automated that it will likely require fewer than a dozen workers on each shift.

Despite the small number of jobs at stake, the terminal has touched off the local area's most intense labor standoff in decades, as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union tries to compel owner EGT Development to hire its workers, as all other West Coast grain terminals do. Talks broke off month ago and there's little prospect that they'll resume.

Acrimony aside, the economic stakes in the battle seem relatively low. Consider:

• EGT now acknowledges that its earlier estimates that union longshore labor will increase its costs by $1 million a year were shots in the dark, developed by lawyers without much analysis.

• Labor costs at the terminal, unlike in most business ventures, will be only a fraction of the total operating costs, and EGT acknowledges that unionized operating engineers hired to run the terminal will be paid comparably to union longshore workers.

• For EGT, the risk of losing part of the fall grain harvest — should the labor dispute lead to that  seems greater than the gain from fighting one of the most entrenched unions on the West Coast.

So why the fuss? Here's a look at both views.

The EGT nerve center

For EGT, the heart of the matter is inside the terminal's control room, the nerve center of the $200 million terminal.

Two operators monitor the multiple cameras 24 hours a day, remotely controlling a conveyor belt system and most of the operations on the 35-acre site, EGT officials said. Thus, from the control room, operators can monitor grain unloading systems, conveyor belts, the 140-foot tall silos and other operations, said Jerry Gibson, EGT terminal general manager. The sophisticated system also helps EGT balance its cargo handling among corn, wheat and soybeans, he said.

It also requires a well-trained, flexible workforce, which is why EGT wants its own people, not union longshoremen, running the show, Larry Clarke, EGT's corporate executive officer, said.

"This requires months of training to do this," he said.

In other parts of the terminal, modern technology has changed the roles of human workers — or eliminated them altogether. Two, multimillion-dollar robotic arms can unload 100 tons of grain in three minutes and require just one employee to supervise the operation. Conveyor belts are covered throughout the terminal, reducing explosive grain dust and manpower needed in the silo, Clarke said. Four trains can be unloaded at once. And the trains never completely stop during the unloading process.

As labor-sparse as the terminal is, though, another facility nearby is just as efficient: The Kalama Export terminal at the north end of the Port of Kalama. Kalama Export uses nonunion company workers at the controls and ILWU workers out on the docks.

Clarke said he had requested a contract similar to the agreement Kalama Export has with the ILWU, with company workers at the controls and longshoremen inside the terminal. The ILWU rejected the proposal, which it agreed to at Kalama Export in the 1980s only after vigorously objecting to it.

"Anything that reduces our efficiency is important to us, because we are ... against a competitor like Kalama Export that has been able to be more efficient than anyone on the Columbia River system," Clarke said.

He added that EGT was troubled about other aspects of hiring ILWU labor, such as mandatory breaks at the beginning and end of shifts for cleanup, costing millions in the long run. EGT also requires one crew dedicated solely to the grain terminal, which could not be called out to other longshore jobs, he said.

Dan Coffman, president of the ILWU's Longview-based Local 21, said ILWU workers are capable of running the control room and running an efficient and safe operation at EGT, and that no workers would leave their shifts before being relieved.

The union is not agreeing to give EGT the same deal as Kalama Export, he said, because Kalama Export agreed to hire more longshore labor. Kalama, he said. employs about 10 to 11 ILWU workers at a time for three shifts. By comparison, EGT only offered the union seven jobs per shift for two, 12-hour shifts, Coffman said.

The union also objected to an EGT proposal to structure 12-hour shifts over two weeks, eliminating overtime pay for working more than eight hours per day, Coffman said.

Since the 1930s, ILWU workers have staffed grain terminals all over the Pacific coast, including the control rooms, and they have a working agreement at every other terminal.

"Grain is very dangerous work, and we've spent decades honing our safety procedures," said Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU's San Francisco-based international.

Workers can easily become trapped in the giant moving mounds of grain, and dozens have suffocated or been crushed in the silos over the years. The ILWU has decades of experience working in grain terminals, which has helped the union develop better safety procedures, Sargent said.

EGT balked at an ILWU demand to pay $20 per man hour to fill the union's underfunded pension plan, Clarke said, a point the company has outlined in a series of print and online ads. Coffman said the ILWU's pension fund took a hit during the recession but is now in better shape. He said the $20 pension surcharge was not debated during negotiations.

ILWU territory

For the ILWU, what's at stake is turf.

The ILWU contends EGT never entered into serious bargaining and was planning to circumvent the union all along. EGT in particular didn't want to be encumbered by union work rules, Coffman said.

"One word: control. They brought that up in negotiations. They wanted to control everything," Coffman said.

The two sides have met face-to-face less than a half dozen times, and both agree that no serious bargaining ever took place. Coffman said EGT waited about a year to deliver its first offer, and talks quickly broke down after that.

Clarke said the company reached out to the union only for a preliminary conversation.

"To be clear, EGT never agreed to, nor are we contractually obligated to employ ILWU labor," he said. A federal judge is reviewing the matter.

Handling grain has been ILWU territory on the waterfront along the West Coast since the 1930s, Coffman said. The union's working agreement with other grain terminals coastwide is set to expire this fall, and union officials say they are concerned they could lose ground in other parts of the West Coast.

In this war of nerves and words, EGT has tried to counter claims that it is anti-union by hiring Federal Way-based General Construction Co., a building subcontractor, to run the terminal. General is proposing to hire union labor from the Gladstone, Ore.-based International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701, which has jurisdiction over Southwest Washington, including the Longview-Kelso area. Clarke has tried to assure the public that some of the operators will be hired from the local area. Nevertheless, the move set off a jurisdictional war with the ILWU.

For the past month, ILWU Local 21 members have staged one of their most militant pickets in decades, blocking incoming grain trains and EGT employees at the gate. The Port of Longview has sued EGT in federal court, claiming the company violated its lease agreement by not hiring ILWU Local 21 labor. EGT contends it the agreement does not mandate use of ILWU labor. It likely will be well into next year before the issue plays out in court.

The two sides have no plans to meet again.

The waiting game

For now, EGT remains in the testing phase for the terminal, but company officials are chomping at the bit to bring it online for the fall harvest and expected millions of dollars of grain sales.

Clarke said he believes EGT will ultimately prevail in court and have no restrictions on which workers the company hires. However, Burlington Northern Santa Fe suspended all train shipments indefinitely to the facility after hundreds of longshoremen blocked the tracks July 14, and Clarke declined to say how the company would bring in grain if picketing continues. EGT also operates a barge dock, which can receive smaller shipments.

But the court case likely won't be resolved until next year.

"Without more capacity like EGT, the American farmer is going to suffer," he said.

Just outside the terminal's gates, the union longshoremen plan to continue their picket, Coffman said.

"The ILWU is not going away in this. We will fight to the end to secure what is rightfully our turf."

Copyright 2015 Longview Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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