ILWU fights global grain giants

Hundreds of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members and supporters rallied March 8 in Vancouver, Wash., then marched to the headquarters of United Grain in a sharpening fight to force it and two other global food commodity trading giants from the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers back to the bargaining table. A fourth company, TEMCO LLC, broke with the PNGH consortium, extended the old contract provisions, continued negotiations and reached an agreement with the ILWU.

The 2010 construction of a new high-tech Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, Wash. — intended to operate without ILWU workers, or drastically weaken the mighty rank-and-file union — continues to be the lever for this broad attack that will likely spill over into coastwide contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association when the contract expires in 2014.

United Grain locked out 44 ILWU Local 4 members on Feb. 27, the day after the ILWU reached an agreement with TEMCO, and two months after an alleged incident of “intentional facility damage,” which United Grain used as an excuse for the lockout.

International President Bob McEllrath proposed that United Grain, Louis Dreyfus Commodities and Columbia Grain use the TEMCO agreement as a starting point to reopen bargaining, calling the TEMCO agreement “a fair contract.” United Grain complained that they couldn’t respond because they didn’t have a copy of the TEMCO-ILWU agreement.

That’s when the traffic-stopping protest on March 8 emphatically delivered a copy of the contract, en masse. The workers chanted, “Bargain!” United Grain officials locked themselves in their office until police delivered the paperwork and the workers dispersed.

The rally and march to United Grain culminated a week of developments. On March 4, the ILWU filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. Then, the columbian.com reported a March 7 work stoppage. When United Grain attempted to use a bollard to tie on and release vessels at the Vancouver port, ILWU members shut down the port for an hour to assert their exclusive right to that work, delaying the unloading of cars until United Grain backed off.

Experienced longshore sources who have read the EGT agreement, the PNGH contract proposals, and the TEMCO contract said language with a pathway to eliminating the ILWU is in all three. The contract resulting from the struggle at EGT in Longview circumvents the union hiring hall — the basis for solidarity among dock workers — and includes other concessions. Could anyone think these global food giants wouldn’t also try to get rid of ILWU?

Unfortunately, the ILWU International diminished this struggle with a base appeal to nationalism instead of working class solidarity. A Feb. 28 press release denounced the lockout, but said, “The [TEMCO] agreement was achieved because American companies, farmers and workers recognize a common interest in our country’s resources and economic well being. … The grain companies … have unilaterally implemented a contract that undermines American working standards.”

It is true that United Grain is a subsid­iary of the Japan-based Mitsui & Co., Ltd. Columbia Grain is a subsidiary of the ­Japan- based Marubeni America Corp. Louis Drey­fus Commodities is headquartered in the Netherlands. EGT’s major partner, Bunge, Ltd., moved its European headquarters to New York to be closer to Wall Street. Each has footprints in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. Each has a long history in commodity trading and the Pacific Northwest grain terminals.

The bottom line is that the world needs food, with a growing market in Asia. According to 2012 Department of Agriculture figures, 28 percent of U.S. grain exports flowed through the Columbia River/Puget Sound grain terminals — more than a billion bushels. (www.ams.usda.govt) The grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest are funnels for this lucrative trade. n