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Port officials, security staff approach strike showdown

Parties enter cooling period after talks boil over on pay, safety risk
by: JIM CLARK, Port of Portland security officer David Vale checks IDs at Terminal 4 on Friday. The officers’ union has been negotiating since May 2007 for higher pay and better benefits. 
A strike could occur early next month.

Security officers at the Port of Portland’s marine terminals are on the brink of a strike that could freeze local commerce in 20 days. And the shooting of a Port of Portland officer in the leg a week ago is raising the stakes on labor negotiations that already have dragged on for 10 months. The marine security officers are part of what port officials consider a “layered security strategy” that protects goods arriving via ship at the city’s ports. They operate separately from federal customs officials, who handle national security at the city’s three marine terminals. Security officers are tasked with manning the gates at roads in and out of those same terminals and screening truckers for government identification. They also monitor and report suspicious incidents to the Portland Police Bureau and the U.S. Coast Guard but are told not to act on questionable happenings. Union representatives for the workers, however, say their jobs involve much more than dialing 911. They say security duties for the 26 workers have been broadened since Sept. 11, 2001, and now include searching cars for explosives, boarding ships with customs officials, enforcing federal threat levels and responding to emergencies, including those that involve hazardous material. They say the new duties and recent theft of metal and electrical equipment — committed by raft-riding thieves and people who climb the fences between the terminals and nearby transient camps — have added significant safety risks to their jobs. The shooting of the security officer, who was shot in the thigh at about 1:30 a.m. March 11 while investigating a suspicious noise at Terminal 4 near the St. Johns Bridge, was the third incident in 90 days in which an officer confronted an intruder, according to union leaders. Injuries to 40-year-old Daniel Mekelburg were not life-threatening. Mekelburg was treated and released from a hospital that night. The shooter is at large, and a Portland police investigation continues. But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 28 has been negotiating since May 2007 for higher pay and better benefits for security workers like Mekelburg, in part because of the safety risks they face, according to David Vale, a union representative. Vale said that in 2007, staff filed several dozen incident reports related to unauthorized entries, thefts, and cut fences and locks. The March 11 incident underscores the workers’ concern that crime at Portland’s marine terminals has outpaced the port’s security strategy, which purposely leaves security officers unarmed and untrained for conflict, Vale said. “The shooting … basically just added insult to injury,” Vale said. “We’ve been concerned about our safety for years. “We’ve had an officer who’s been stabbed on duty, we’ve had an officer who’s been shot,” Vale said. “Two months ago we had an officer attacked with rocks and a two-by-four.” Despite the claims, port officials said they’ve taken considerable steps to increase security at the terminals since Sept. 11 and are midway through a $3 million security upgrade. Since September 2006, they’ve added seven security officers and one security superintendent to their work force, port officials said. The March 11 shooting is prompting a review of security procedures, safety equipment and job requirements and training for security staff. Port spokesman Josh Thomas acknowledged metal theft has been on the rise at marine terminals, with four incidents in the last four months, and agreed that wage negotiations with security workers could lead to a strike. But he denied that safety concerns have been central to the failing negotiations. “The fundamental difference in the negotiation has been about money, not about safety,” he said. “From the port’s perspective, we’ve always been concerned about the safety of employees … but the safety issue in the negotiation has not been an issue; it’s been about dollar amounts.” Sidearms not issued Starting salary for the marine security officers is $20.39 an hour, according to Vale, though most of the officers have a history with the agency and are earning $23.38 hourly. The union is seeking a 10 percent pay raise. “We can’t negotiate the ability to carry a sidearm because we can only negotiate wage and benefits,” Vale said. “But the port has chosen not to issue a sidearm, and because the port has chosen not to issue a sidearm, they have placed us at a higher risk and we want to be compensated for that risk.” Negotiations currently are in a 30-day cooling-off period, which ends April 7. No further talks are planned. Union officials say their members can and will strike after the cooling period ends. Should the security officers strike, the impacts to the region could be broad. Vale said other union labor, including longshoremen and truck drivers, would not cross the picket line to work at marine terminals if security officers strike. “I imagine there would be a ripple in the area economically just from the fact that no goods would be moving either by container cargo or on roads,” he said. “If we strike, basically all of the seaport is shut down.” Steve Kountz, an economic development planner with the city of Portland, said 96,000 wholesale and transportation jobs are tied to port operations and said the day-to-day reach of port operations is wide-ranging. “Port operators are critical to the broader distribution sector in Portland. We’re a Pacific trade gateway city, and so the ramifications of what happens at the port extend to a very large distribution industry,” he said. Port: Fair offers presented Port officials said the impacts of a strike would depend on its length and how many labor groups participated. “At this point the port has declared an impasse,” the port’s Thomas said. “The port has presented fair offers based on compensation and recognition of the work that they do and ultimately it’s going to be their decision whether or not to strike.” Vale said the port’s offers have not been commensurate with the risks security officers assume and cherry-pick the lowest numbers from salary packages paid to port security workers in Tacoma, Wash., and California. Vale said Portland is the only West Coast port that does not arm its security officers or hire police to accompany them. The security officers also are not trained for conflict, though the port requires them to have law enforcement, military or public security experience to qualify for the job, Vale said. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.