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Port traffic halts, nerves fray

Dockworkers, barges and trains go idle as lockout extends indefinitely

Portland's union longshoremen are picketing city docks 24 hours a day to protest being locked out from their jobs as part of a labor dispute that has brought marine trade on the West Coast to a standstill.

Dockworkers waved signs in the driving rain early Monday at Terminal 6 on the Columbia River in North Portland, while passing truckers showed their support by honking their horns. Normally the city's busiest point of entry and exit for container ships, T-6 is now a scene of inactivity due to stalled negotiations between the International Longshore Workers Union and the Pacific Maritime Association.

The 600 members of Portland's Local 8 of the ILWU who are rotating on the pickets are not allowed to talk to the media. But frustrations were evident at several of the picket lines and at the local's hiring hall on Northwest Front Avenue, where union members serving as marshals stood watch over all of the building's entrances and members of the media were not allowed inside.

'There's a lot of frustration and a lot of confusion,' said Bruce Holte, president of Local 8. 'I've had at least 500 phone calls today.'

The maritime association locked out longshoremen at 29 West Coast ports for 36 hours over the weekend. It charged that union-instigated work slowdowns last week from Seattle to Los Angeles were 'equivalent to strikes with pay.'

The lockout was extended indefinitely Sunday, just after the longshoremen had returned to work. In Portland longshore workers were sent home from their jobs at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Holte said the longshoremen are fighting for their livelihoods and their union.

'This is a control thing,' he said. 'They want to get rid of the union. They're trying to outsource our work. All they want to do is take, take, take, so there's just a few of us left, and then they'll get rid of us.'

At the heart of the dispute are technological advances to shipping operations that could cost the union many jobs if instituted. There also are issues with safety and security, such as the question of whether incoming empty containers should be carefully inspected. ILWU members strongly believe that the inspections should occur, but they would cost additional money that shippers don't want to spend. Longshore workers in Portland earn on average $70,000 per year.

Meanwhile, barges and rail cars Ñ coming from 11 states Ñ are hauling tons of grain to the Port of Portland only to discover that there's no place to put it.

Jonathan Schlueter of the Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association said 2,500 rail cars of grain come into the Port of Portland each week, 'and they need to be unloaded very quickly.' However, Portland's grain elevators are not intended to be storage facilities.

Schlueter said the lockout's timing is especially unfortunate because it is cutting into a favorable export market that is bringing high prices for U.S. grain: Rival growers Canada and Australia, suffering from poor crops, have cut back on exports.

The Port of Portland is the country's biggest grain exporter, and the ports along the lower Columbia River and Puget Sound ship out 40 percent of all U.S. wheat exported, as well as 25 percent of U.S. grain exports. It's a business worth more than $3 billion annually.

Rob Rich, office manager at Shaver Transportation Co., said, 'The elevators are jammed full of wheat, so they (dockworkers) really can't take any more off the barges.'

Rich said grain shipments have been slowed by well more than half, 'and this is only the second day of the lockout.' He said Shaver grain barges are still loading at upriver ports on both the Columbia and Snake rivers, but the barges will have to sit idle in the river until the dispute ends.

The lockout also is damaging to companies depending on imports.

'Right now it's chaos,' said Patti Iverson-Summer of Global Trading Resources, a company that functions both as a freight forwarder and a customs house broker.

'We've got probably 60 containers still on the dock, customers cleared, ready to be picked up Ñ and we can't.' She said another seven containers are stuck in Tacoma.

Global Trading, one of several freight forwarding companies in Portland, works for small and midsize companies, mostly in Portland

'They're significantly impacted when they can't get their freight. Their product is sometimes based on raw materials, so if they don't come in, their factories go down,' she said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said the railroad isn't accepting containers for international shipment and won't do so until the dispute is resolved. The railway handles an average of 4,000 to 7,000 containers a day from all West Coast ports.

Meanwhile, he said, some trains are 'positioned' awaiting an announcement that the lockout is over. 'Not much traffic is moving at this point,' he said.

Dae Beck, an economist in the state's office of economic analysis, said that if the work stoppage on the docks continues for any length of time it could short-circuit the anemic recovery that has been under way in Oregon's manufacturing sector.

'Through July we had a rebound in exports to rest of the world. That was a good sign consistent with the slight improvement (we were seeing) in our manufacturing sector.'

The direct and indirect effects of a work stoppage on West Coast docks could have the reverse effect, Beck said. 'This is a very important development.'

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