UPDATE 1-Workers at 4 US Pacific NW ports reject contract offer
SEATTLE, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Dockworkers at four U.S. Pacific Northwest ports voted to reject a "final" contract offer presented by grain shippers, their union said on Monday, setting the stage for a possible labor clash that could hamper exports from the region.
Rich Austin, co-chairman of the negotiating committee for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), said in a statement his side remains "committed to reaching a fair agreement" and called for grain exporters to "return to the negotiating table."
There was no immediate comment from the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents the shipping companies and the grain terminals they own.
The stalemate in contract talks, and expectation that workers would reject management's latest offer, has fueled speculation that the shipping companies might move to impose a lockout of union members and to keep the grain terminals operating with replacement workers.
The ILWU has said the shippers have hired a Delaware-based company that specializes in providing security and replacement workers in labor disputes.
The Coast Guard said last 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 management called its "last, best and final" offer were cast Friday and Saturday by nearly 3,000 rank-and-file union members in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington.
According to the final tally announced on Monday, 93.8 percent of those voting disapproved the proposal, as recommended by union leaders, and 6.2 percent voted to accept it.
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 Sept. 30.
Waterfront labor strife in the Northwest would compound an existing slowdown in grain shipments caused by the low water levels on the Mississippi River by making it harder for exporters to meet expectations set by the U.S. Agriculture Department, said Bob Utterback of Utterback Marketing Services, a brokerage for farmers.
Both sides have declined to discuss in detail the points of contention that have blocked a settlement.
The shipping companies say the chief issue is "beneficial work rules" that will give them a cost advantage over competitors. A spokesman last week said 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 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.
(Reporting by Laura L. Myers, Christine Stebbins and Tom Polansek; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)