* Grain shippers declare impasse in stalled contract talks
* Companies move to unilaterally impose terms of "final"
* Dockworkers union says members will stay on the job for
SEATTLE, Dec 26 (Reuters) - The threat of imminent labor
unrest 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.
Both sides in the stalemate left open the door to further
negotiations. A spokesman for the U.S. Federal Mediation and
Conciliation Service told Reuters the agency was in contact on
Wednesday with the parties.
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
The contracts at issue cover workers at six of the nine
grain terminals operating in Puget Sound and along the Columbia
River that handle more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports
and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports.
In calling an impasse after a last, brief round of talks on
Wednesday, the shipping 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 agreement.
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 might take such action 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.
The U.S. Coast Guard said in recent days it was prepared to
establish "buffer zones" to keep union-related protests from
interfering with navigation around two of the ports seen as most
likely to be caught up in labor tensions.
"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."
STAYING ON THE JOB UNDER 'SUBSTANDARD' TERMS
The companies said that under an impasse, the union
essentially had three choices - to acquiesce and accept
management's terms, 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 Northwest Grain Handlers left open the possibility of
imposing a "defensive" lockout should the union begin to engage
in "intermittent strike activity," a "partial strike," work
slowdowns or sabotage.
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 for a strike threatened on
Dec. 30 by nearly 15,000 union dockworkers unless shippers
extend their contract.
So far, the ILWU has not asked its members to authorize a
strike, nor has it set a strike deadline or made mention of a