By Laura L. Myers and Teresa Carson
SEATTLE, PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Nearly 3,000 union dock workers at four Pacific Northwest ports began voting on Friday on a "final" contract offer presented by grain shippers, setting the stage for a possible labor clash should workers reject the proposal, as urged by union leaders.
The potential stalemate has fueled speculation that the shipping companies might move to impose a lockout of union members and keep the grain terminals operating with replacement workers in the event management's offer fails to win approval.
The U.S. Coast Guard said earlier this week it was preparing to establish buffer zones to keep union-related protests from interfering with navigation around two of the ports in question.
Votes on a contract proposal Northwest shippers called their "last, best and final" offer were being cast Friday and Saturday by nearly 3,000 rank-and-file union members in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) said it expects to announce results of the vote on Monday.
The proposed contract covers six of the nine grain terminals operating in the Puget Sound and along the Columbia River the industry says account for more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports and nearly half of U.S. wheat exports.
The union dock workers at those six terminals have been without a contract since September 30. Talks stalled after the union presented its latest proposal on November 16. Following two days of federally mediated negotiations, the companies on December 17 rejected a union counteroffer.
Union negotiators then submitted the companies' November 16 offer to the rank and file but unanimously recommended that it be rejected.
An ILWU representative said the shipping companies have hired a Delaware-based company that specializes in providing security and replacement workers in labor disputes.
But the union official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to publicly discuss the status of talks, said the ILWU remains unsure of the shippers' intent.
'ALL CONTINGENCIES ARE ON THE TABLE'
A spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents the shipping companies and the grain terminals they own, declined to say whether management might move to lock out union workers.
"All contingencies are on the table as to what would happen next," said the spokesman, Pat McCormick. "It's an extremely complicated issue that's been in play for an extended period of time."
The prospect of labor unrest at the ports prompted the Coast Guard to establish temporary "safety zones" around the Columbia Grain facility in Portland and the United Grain Corp. terminal in Vancouver.
"These safety zones are being established to ensure that protest activities relating to a labor dispute involving these facilities do not create hazardous navigation conditions for vessels in the navigable channel or vessels attempting to moor at the facilities," the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Both sides have declined to discuss in detail the points of contention that have blocked a settlement.
McCormick said the chief issue is "beneficial work rules that provide a cost advantage."
He added that shippers were seeking the same workplace rules and terms the union had agreed to after lengthy and contentious labor talks with EGT, an exporter that opened a new $200 million terminal last year in Longview, Washington.
The ILWU cited 750 changes it said the companies were seeking to impose on labor contract terms that have stood for more than 80 years.
The possibility of a waterfront labor showdown in Washington state and Oregon comes as ports along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts brace for a separate strike threatened for December 30 by union dock workers unless shippers extend their contract.
Weeks ago, harbor clerks and union longshoremen honoring their picket lines staged an eight-day walkout at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, idling much of the nation's busiest cargo-shipping complex.
(Reporting by Laura L. Myers in Seattle and Teresa Carson in Portland; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Todd Eastham)