PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The dispute over which union workers at the Port of Portland should perform the task of plugging and unplugging refrigerated shipping containers has been resolved, but it's unknown if it will be enough to keep the port's most important container carrier from abandoning the city.
Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday the work will be assigned to workers represented by International Longshore & Warehouse Union, which has long been trying to wrest the equivalent of two full-time jobs from union electricians.
The disagreement ignited a slowdown in the summer of 2012 that backed up truck traffic outside the port and disrupted businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest. Though productivity has improved, port officials say it hasn't returned to pre-dispute levels, and that factored into a recent decision by Hanjin Shipping Co. to stop visiting Portland early next year.
Hanjin handles 78 percent of the port's container business, and it's hoped the company will have a change of heart if productivity improves.
"We know that Hanjin's departure was not due to a lack of available cargo here in Portland," said Josh Thomas, a Port of Portland spokesman. "Resolving issues like this - one of the root causes of their announced withdrawal - absolutely helps make the case for Hanjin to stay in this market."
Jeff McEwen, Portland manager for the South Korean shipping line, was out of the office Thursday. Officials at the company's Seattle office did not return calls seeking comment.
More than 1,000 businesses, primarily in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, depend on the Portland's Terminal 6 to get goods to or from international markets. Their costs will increase if Hanjin leaves and cargo must be trucked to or from Puget Sound.
The dispute centered on the work of maintaining refrigerated cargo containers known as reefers.
The electrical workers performed the task for decades under an agreement with the port. The question of whether they should keep the work arose after the port leased Terminal 6 operations to a private firm, ICTSI Oregon Inc., a subsidiary of a company in the Philippines.
The lease includes language giving the work to union electricians, but the longshoremen said the jobs must switch to them because of the collective bargaining agreement between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association that covers all West Coast ports. It states that longshoremen maintain reefers.
The National Labor Relations Board awarded the jobs to electricians, but a federal judge tossed out that decision. A different judge summed up the dilemma last year when he said it's possible that ICTSI sold the same rock to different buyers.
With no solution in sight - and a big container carrier set to leave - Kitzhaber got the parties together and urged a compromise.
The electricians agreed to give up the jobs with the assurance of additional work now and in the future, the governor's office said, and the port and the union also agreed to an apprenticeship program to the train the next generation of union electricians.
"With the resolution of this key dispute, we can keep Terminal 6 a competitive, productive and internationally attractive container terminal," Kitzhaber said in a statement. "This agreement should provide assurance to container companies and businesses around Oregon that the conflict over this work will no longer be a factor in terminal operations."
Gary Young, the business manager for Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said in a statement relayed through an attorney: "At the end of the day we have to rise above our own parochial interests and look to the bigger picture, and do what is in the best interest of everyone."
An ILWU spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment.