For more than a month, a labor dispute has clogged cargo at the port. The ILWU Local 8 has been accused of intentionally slowing work at Terminal 6, the port’s only international container-ship terminal—all in a dispute over two jobs.
The jobs involve plugging and unplugging refrigerated containers, called reefers. The jobs went to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has a contract with the port. But the longshoremen say their contract with the company leasing the terminal, ICTSI of Oregon, gives them the right to those jobs.
A U.S. district judge issued a restraining order July 3 against the union’s slowdown. Meanwhile, ships have diverted cargo to other ports, costing the region millions.
The port has set the media agenda, in part because the ILWU is notoriously press-averse. But the union has decided to tell its side. And it’s chosen Sundet—a burly Norwegian who worked the Portland docks from 1991 until elected a coast committeeman in 2006—to tell its story.
WW: Tell me why this isn’t just about two jobs.
Leal Sundet: I don’t think there’s any gained jobs for us or a loss of jobs for the IBEW. You have one rogue employer, is what it amounts to. One rogue employer that wants a special deal for itself.
What are the jobs like? These reefers are big.
They are the same size as a 40-foot truck.
So this is skilled labor?
The repairing of the reefer is highly skilled, and longshoremen repair all the reefers on the dock. It’s like a big refrigerator, and typically it’s high-valued cargo that’s sensitive to temperature. Actually plugging the cord in doesn’t take a lot of skill. It’s no different than plugging a cord into a house socket.
What’s usually in the reefers?
It could be frozen meat; it could be vegetables; in some cases it could be electronic parts that have to be kept at a certain temperature. Medications. If it goes bad and it spoils, it’s very expensive to the customer, and then everybody points fingers.
So these particular two jobs are not necessarily the most valued jobs in the world.
It’s the principle of the thing. It’s the principle of whether or not one of our companies can pick or choose what part of the contract we have with them they are going to comply with. That’s it. It’s unfairly reported as this fight between two unions for two jobs. That’s not what the issue is.
So how are things on the terminal? It’s got to be getting stressful out there at this point.
Not a lot of work. Not too stressful. There’s very little cargo, if any, on the docks.
We don’t have a problem with the electricians at all. That’s being improperly reported, I think, in the paper. I think the electricians understand what our position is.
Why are the ships going elsewhere?
The carriers don’t want to violate [our contract]. Remember: It’s their equipment. From a carrier’s perspective, ICTSI is their subcontractor. So if you tell your subcontractor, “I want you to do something with my stuff a certain way,” and a subcontractor says no, what are you gonna do?
Obviously, it impacts Portland financially. The people of Portland can’t be very happy.
Well, they might not be. So they should be upset with ICTSI.
Not with you?
There’s nothing that we did. We got an agreement to assign the work, and they refused to assign it. They say they won’t because of the lease with the port—and the port has a contract with IBEW.
Sounds like a lousy lease.
The judge described it as selling the same rock to two different people. There’s only one rock.
And it’s your rock?
It’s our rock.