Talks at Northwest ports go down to the wire

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PORTLAND (AP) — The union contract between longshoremen and the companies that operate six grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest expires Sunday.

The situation threatens to disrupt shipments of wheat, corn and soybeans to Asia as the weight of last year’s violent protests in Longview, Wash., bears down on negotiations.

Neither side has commented on the talks. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, the consortium of grain shippers, declined to say if there are plans to boost security or hire replacement workers.

“Prudence suggests that probably everyone involved has contingency plans, but I don’t have anything I can confirm,” he said.

The region has nine grain terminals, seven along the Columbia River and two on Puget Sound. More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports move through these facilities.

Six of the nine terminals operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The others, including Export Grain Terminal in Longview, have different agreements.

The Longview contract looms over these negotiations — both for concessions won by management and the violence that preceded the deal.

In a fact sheet sent at the start of talks, the Grain Handlers Association indicated it wants a contract similar to what Longview longshoremen ultimately accepted.

The operators said cost-saving workplace rules in the agreement are “much more advantageous” than those at their terminals.

“Leveling the playing field and avoiding extreme competitive disparities among Northwest grain shippers and ports is vital,” the association said.

As the sides negotiate, farmers watch, wait and hope they don’t need a less direct, more expensive transportation option — if there is another option.

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