Union worker seeks delay of civil lawsuit

United Grain claims he sabotaged operations

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A former union worker accused of sabotaging operations at United Grain Corp. during a labor dispute in December has asked Clark County Superior Court to delay the company’s civil lawsuit against him until a criminal investigation is resolved.

United Grain sued Todd Walker of Vancouver on Feb. 28 for $300,000, claiming damages to grain equipment at the Port of Vancouver and related losses from a temporary shutdown of grain-loading operations. The latest version of the civil suit requires Walker to answer a series of discovery questions by the end of April.

Walker’s attorney, Gene Mechanic, said that requiring Walker to answer those questions before the criminal investigation of the allegation is completed would violate his client’s constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty said he won’t determine whether to file criminal charges against Walker for another week to two weeks.

A spokesman and attorney for United Grain said they were not ready to comment on Wednesday.

A hearing on Walker’s request to postpone the civil case has not yet been scheduled.

The civil case was assigned to Judge Daniel Stahnke. However, on April 4, Walker asked the court to assign the case to a different judge.

“I do not believe that I can have a fair and impartial trial before Hon. Daniel Stahnke,” he wrote in an affidavit. He did not elaborate about his reasons for that belief and couldn’t be reached on Wednesday. His attorney didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the matter.

United Grain’s lawsuit says Walker, an official with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was assigned to work Dec. 22 at the company’s terminal as a switchman, operating railroad switches to allow grain cars to be moved to and from the unloading area.

That day, the lawsuit alleges, Walker tried to sabotage the company’s operations by “throwing a pipe into the drag chain conveyer” and pouring sand into the company’s progressor gearbox.

The union has denied any wrongdoing by its members.

The sabotage allegation intensified the bitter labor dispute between United Grain and union members. On Feb. 27, United Grain locked out 44 union workers.

Since the lockout, picketers have stood vigil outside the entrance to the Port of Vancouver and outside the Riverview Tower in downtown Vancouver, where United Grain has an office.

Meanwhile, the ILWU has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against United Grain, which the National Labor Relations Board is investigating.

The contract dispute centers on dissatisfaction over working conditions and job security for union employees. The contract, which union members voted to reject, took effect in December. The new contract allows the company to hire fewer employees to assist in loading, gives managers more discretion in staffing decisions, and permits use of nonunion members for jobs union workers don’t want to work, according to the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. The association includes United Grain and other terminal operators.

The union says the contract limits its ability to protect workers’ interests, such as maintaining family-wage jobs.