Militant West Coast US dockers’ union the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is facing a major showdown with multinational grain companies in the Pacific Northwest. The union is in dispute with an employer body called the Pacific Northw …

Walton Pantland

Militant West Coast US dockers’ union the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is facing a major showdown with multinational grain companies in the Pacific Northwest. The union is in dispute with an employer body called the Pacific Northwest Grain Handler’s Association (PNGHA), which manages export terminals that handle 50% of US wheat exports and a quarter of grain. 3,000 workers are involved in the dispute, with the employer body threatening a lockout at the grain terminals to undermine union rates.

Multinational grain companies who are currently making record profits have reportedly hired replacement non-union workers to take over work currently being done by ILWU members in case of a lockout in the Ports of Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

The ILWU reports that global grain giants are attacking an 80-year-old collective bargaining agreement they have had with the union since 1934. Negotiations began in late August 2012 and ended without a contract in mid-December, with the employer barely budging from its non-starter, concessionary proposals, which are said to be seemingly designed to create an impasse. The members are now working under an imposed contract.

Affiliates of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) around the world are showing support for their colleagues in the ILWU.

Solidarity with their docker colleagues was shown this week, when ITF US West Coast coordinator Jeff Engels boarded the vessel Ramada Queen at United Grain in Vancouver, and found that the captain and crew were well aware of the ILWU’s labour dispute, and that they expressed solidarity with the ILWU on behalf of their own union, the Japanese Seamen’s Union (JSU).

Jeff Engels 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.”

JSU contracts include an ITF solidarity clause that its members will honour other unions’ picket lines. The JSU had informed the ship’s owner of this clause.

“The crew reiterated that they stand one hundred percent in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the ILWU,” Jeff Engels said.

“Seafarers from around the world are grateful for the ILWU’s solidarity over the decades,” said Engels. “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 well-being of workers.”

Corporate owners of the six grain elevators involved in current negotiations include Japanese powerhouses Mitsui and Marubeni, Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities, and United States-based Cargill and CHS.

The companies have hired JR Gettier and Associates, a known strike breaking firm, and union longshoremen (dockers) have seen replacement workers milling about the facilities.

“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,” said Engels. “The global network of solidarity among workers provides a counterweight to the power of these corporations.”

ITF president and chair of the ITF dockers’ section, Paddy Crumlin, said: “When you sign up to the ITF you sign up to watching out for your mates. That’s what solidarity is, and that’s what’s built into everything we do. I am heartened and not surprised to see this crew spreading that message.

“We don’t like employers who pretend to be interested in negotiation but reach for union busting strategies instead. That behaviour has been noticed, and herecomes the warning: our friends in the ILWU can be sure of worldwide supportagainst that type of behaviour .”

Acting ITF general secretary Steve Cotton added: “ITF unions are on standby to help their colleagues in the US. Whether it’s on ships or in ports, workers are watching what happens next and planning accordingly.”

The ILWU has a radical history resulting from a large Communist and IWW influence in its early years. ILWU supported the Liverpool Dockers. members took action against the Iraq war, and recently joined Occupy Oakland in a shut down of West Coast ports.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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