Federal mediator announces tentative deal in long running Northwest grain terminal dispute

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced a tentative agreement in the contentious two-year labor dispute at Northwest grain terminals.

The agency in Washington, D.C., says the agreement was reached just before midnight Monday in talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Northwest grain companies.

The agency says the union will recommend the agreement to its members for ratification.

If approved, the agreement should ensure that U.S. grain exports will proceed without disruption as harvest approaches.

An ILWU spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the grain companies, said he needed to be briefed on the deal before making a statement.

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine grain terminals on the Columbia River and Puget Sound. The contract dispute initially involved six of those terminals that operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU: United Grain, based in Vancouver, Washington; Columbia Grain, based in Portland; Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which has grain elevators in Portland and Seattle; and Temco, which has elevators in Portland and Tacoma, Washington.

Temco broke away from the alliance in early December 2012 and negotiated separately with the union.

United Grain, which has the largest storage capacity of any West Coast grain export facility, imposed a lockout in February 2013 after saying a worker represented by the ILWU sabotaged company equipment. Columbia Grain Inc. followed suit with a lockout that began in May 2013.

The agreement comes shortly after U.S. Department of Agriculture grain inspectors refused to walk past picket lines into the United Grain terminal.

The action was taken shortly after state grain inspectors stopped entering the terminal, because of picketing longshoremen.

Federal law requires inspections for grain exports, so the refusal to cross the picket line crippled shipments from that terminal and put pressure on the owner to reach a deal.

The two-year labor dispute was primarily about workplace rules, not money. The grain companies said throughout that they are at a competitive disadvantage because the longshoremen at their terminals had more favorable rules than those in the Washington cities of Kalama and Longview.

What was agreed to late Monday has not been divulged. Early contract offers from the grain handlers would have taken away some perks and grievance procedures. Other concessions include letting employers go to court to end work stoppages immediately and allowing supervisors to perform work during health-and-safety disputes.