By TIM ALEXANDER
ANKENY, Iowa — The clock is winding down on a temporary agreement to avert a labor strike after contract negotiations between longshoremen and Pacific Northwest grain terminal operators were extended into mid-October late last month.
The outcome of the negotiations is being watched closely by grain producers as far away as the Midwest, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Ankeny-based Soy Transportation Coalition (STC).
“If negotiations fail, it could have a very detrimental impact on U.S. agriculture at a very unfortunate time,” said Steenhoek, referring to disruptions in exports during harvest season. “In 2011, 22 percent of soybean exports departed from the Pacific Northwest. When soybeans are loaded onto a railcar, 68 percent of those shipments are destined to either Oregon or Washington state.”
Talks are continuing between the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Assoc. (PNGHA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), even as nine grain terminal operators in the Portland, Vancouver and Seattle areas are lining up non-union workers and a security company in case of a strike, according to PNGHA spokesman Pat McCormick. The PNGHA’s contract with the longshoreman’s union expired Sept. 30.
“The parties to the agreement have agreed to continue operations, normal operations, during the period of continued bargaining,” McCormick told news sources.
With talks occurring at the peak of harvest season, Steenhoek fears a mid-October or later work stoppage at the terminals would not only disrupt the supply chain for soybean exports, but threaten the impunity of the United States’ hard-earned reputation as the world leader in agricultural exports.
“If there is a stoppage, there will be pain felt here in the Midwest,” said Steenhoek. “The Pacific Northwest is the No. 2 launching point for soybeans onto the international marketplace. These are beans mainly from Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and some of the western states.
“When you look at soybean exports, 70 to 80 percent occur from September through February and the beginning of the South American harvest, when our exports drop. It’s a critical time for soybean exports in particular, and this would be a real inopportune time for a disruption in the supply chain such as a work stoppage.”
The United States is respected worldwide for not allowing political turmoil or labor unrest to upset exports, but that reputation will be threatened if customers don’t receive shipments in a timely manner, Steenhoek continued. “Once you have a supply disruption it’s hard to regain that trust. We take these kinds of threats very seriously,” he said.
Though exports originating from the terminals – which are located on the Columbia River and Puget Sound – were flowing normally at press time, the STC remains concerned productivity may be suffering while negotiations continue.
“I haven’t seen this impact any of the grain terminals, but at a couple of sites some longshoremen are showing up but working at a much slower pace, at about 50 percent efficiency. And the head of their union was recently charged with an offense for helping lead a blockage of the EGT terminal,” said Steenhoek.
He was referring to a September 2011 incident in which ILWU members blocked a train carrying cargo, clashed with police, attacked a shipping facility and held a wildcat strike that shut down ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett in western Washington. The union alleged that EGT, a subsidiary of Bunge North America, was forcing out union workers by requiring 12-hour shifts without overtime pay at its newly-built plant in southern Washington, among other issues.
“(The EBT action) is the latest in a very long line of actions that longshoremen are taking to stand up to a foreign company that’s trying to get a foothold in Washington and undermine the grain industry,” said ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent after the 2011 incident, according to the Seattle Daily News.
In case the ILWU is locked out by a strike, the U.S. Coast Guard is preparing for the ramifications – including possible protests on the water – by coordinating with longshoremen, terminal managers, police agencies, a private security company, river pilots, shipping agents and vessel operators, according to The Oregonian.
“(The ILWU) told us that at this time if it does become a protest, they do intend to have boats on the water,” said Captain Bruce Jones, Coast Guard commanding officer for Oregon and southern Washington. “They assured us they would not use their vessels to try and blockade the channel.”