The threat of a work stoppage at four U.S. Pacific Northwest ports was averted on Wednesday as the dockworkers union said its members would stay on the job despite "substandard" contract terms being imposed unilaterally by grain shippers.
The shipping companies declared a formal impasse in stalled contract talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) days after nearly 3,000 rank-and-file union members voted overwhelmingly to reject management's "last, best and final" offer.
In calling an impasse, the companies also said they planned to implement terms of their latest proposal, effective at 6 a.m. local time on Thursday.
The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents the shipping companies and grain terminals they own, stressed the move was not the "lockout" that was widely expected after management's proposal failed to win union approval.
Under a "lockout," employers typically bar union members from returning to work, and seek to keep operations running with non-union replacement workers, until a settlement is reached.
Speculation that grain shippers would move to impose a lockout was fueled by union reports that the companies had hired a Delaware-based company that specializes in providing security and replacement workers in labor disputes.
"This is not a lockout," association spokesman Pat McCormick said in a statement. "The companies informed the union that ILWU members are welcome to come to work under the new terms and conditions of employment."
The companies said that under an impasse, the union essentially had three choices -- to accept the terms of a new contract, to call a strike, or to have their members continue to report to work under the imposed work rules but seek further bargaining.
In a brief statement released shortly after the impasse was declared the union said it was following the third course, at least for now.
"The men and women of the ILWU ... intend to continue working despite the substandard provisions of the employers' latest offer," ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said in a statement. "We are reviewing the multinational employers' letter and we're disappointed that they haven't accepted the union's invitation to continue negotiating."
The contract talks cover six of the nine grain terminals operating in Puget Sound and along the Columbia River that account for more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports.
Negotiations have stalemated over numerous work-rule changes sought by the companies to improve efficiency and lower costs but have been opposed by the ILWU as onerous give-backs ultimately designed to break the union.
Meanwhile, some 15 container cargo ports on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts are bracing a strike threatened for Dec. 30 by nearly 15,000 union dockworkers unless shippers extend their contract. That dispute has centered largely on the future of so-called "container" royalties earned by union members based on tons of cargo moved through a port.