Monday, January 21, 2013

Lockout or Solidarity Action Possible as Pacific NorthWest Shipping Dispute Escalates

Unions Disgruntled as Little Progress in Grain Handling Dispute Lingers On
Shipping News Feature

US – It seems despite solutions, at least in part, being found to the strikes and difficult labour relations which recently afflicted both the West and East coast ports of the country shipping groups may still find themselves affected due to another dispute between dock workers and employers in the business of exporting grain through the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon as talk begins of a lockout.

Negotiations between the multinational grain companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been ongoing since August last year and thousands of union members in the Pacific NorthWest voted against a deal in December leading to deadlock. Now a statement from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) makes it clear that this is an argument still with some way to run.

According to the unions the corporate owners of the six elevators involved in current negotiations have made ‘record profits’ and include Japan’s Mitsui and Marubeni, Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities, and United States-based Cargill and CHS. The companies have allegedly hired JR Gettier and Associates, referred to by the ITF as a ‘known strike breaking firm’, a company which specialises in replacement labour during such disputes and also offers security services to employers in strike situations.

ILWU members are currently working under what they term ‘an imposed contract’ and claim the global grain giants are attacking an 80-year-old collective bargaining agreement they have had with the union since 1934 and adopting a non concessionary stance. Now the ITF claims they are receiving support from associated union members such as the captain and crew of the Ramada Queen which, whilst docked at United Grain in Vancouver, apparently stated they were aware of the dispute and expressed solidarity with the ILWU on behalf of their own union, the Japanese Seamen’s Union (JSU). ITF US West Coast coordinator Jeff Engels made his position very clear when he explained:

“The captain and seafarers had learned of the ILWU’s struggle weeks ago, while they were still docked in Asian ports. As union members themselves, who are among 4.5 million workers united as affiliates of the ITF, they knew the players involved as well as the high stakes for workers. The crew reiterated that they stand one hundred percent in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the ILWU.

“Seafarers from around the world are grateful for the ILWU’s solidarity over the decades. They’re eager to have the opportunity to support the ILWU in their campaign to secure a good contract with the global grain merchants. They understand that workers need to stick together, or we’ll all be exploited by corporations that put profit above the wellbeing of workers. The global grain giants control the world’s food supply, and they’re trying to use that power to break unions, even as they are making record profits. The global network of solidarity among workers provides a counterweight to the power of these corporations.”

The solidarity clause agreed by ITF member unions is very specific in that it expressly forbids anyone involved, including ships crews, to undertake work which has been suspended during an official trade dispute involving an ITF-affiliated dock workers’ union if it might affect resolution of the dispute. The agreement also states that the shipping companies involved should their staff take this action will not treat this as a breach of contract nor take ‘punitive action’ against the crew.

It is to be hoped in the light of the recent agreements reached elsewhere in the country in somewhat similar disputes that a suitable agreement can be reached before the situation worsens.

Photo: JR Gettier