The Washington state Department of Agriculture says it will soon stop providing grain inspection services at United Grain Corp.'s facility at the Port of Vancouver unless steps are taken to make it safer for its inspectors to cross picket lines to conduct their work.
Don Hover, director of the state Department of Agriculture, outlined his concerns in an Aug. 19 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the behavior of pickets from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union "escalates, more staff are feeling unsafe in crossing the picket lines and are opting not to do so," he wrote.
Hover's letter adds yet another twist to the continuing standoff between local longshore workers and United Grain. The feud, part of a larger conflict in the Northwest, has attracted a review by the National Labor Relations Board, prompted letters from government leaders urging the parties to return to the bargaining table and triggered concerns on the part of Eastern Washington grain growers who worry about getting their products to overseas markets.
The possibility that state agricultural inspectors, charged with protecting U.S. and international grain trade and consumer interests, may discontinue their work at United Grain raises a fresh concern: that the average 3.2 million metric tons of grain that moves through the Port of Vancouver to overseas markets will stop moving. About 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports move through the port.
But Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which includes United Grain, said that's an unlikely scenario. If the state declines to conduct inspections, McCormick said Tuesday in an email to The Columbian, the company expects federal inspectors to "provide the services required under federal law."
McCormick said the port needs to provide adequate security so inspectors don't have to face "intimidating and threatening" behavior on the part of ILWU members. Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager, said the port has spelled out rules for keeping everyone safe and that its security team and plan are solid.
In an email to The Columbian, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said United Grain is "failing to take responsibility for its own provocative moves" that have led to increased tensions at the port and to an unsafe environment.
Negotiations between the ILWU and United Grain started a year ago. On Feb. 27, the company locked out 44 workers at the Port of Vancouver after alleging a union official had sabotaged equipment. The union has denied wrongdoing, and the Clark County prosecuting attorney hasn't yet decided whether to file criminal charges.
'Vulnerable … to harm'
In his letter, Hover, the director of the state Department of Agriculture, says the vulnerability of inspectors has been made worse because of "limited physical access" to the general area near a gate set up by the port; "potential significant wait time" for Vancouver police to arrive; and "inadequate capacity for port officers to intervene."
In one Aug. 14 incident involving 40 picketers, our "staff was vulnerable to serious physical harm," Hover wrote to Randall Jones, deputy administrator with the Federal Grain Inspection Service, in the letter obtained by The Columbian this week. "This incident included a picketer opening the vehicle door of one of our inspectors, yelling obscenities in the inspector's face, and kicking the door shut."
Hover said inspection staff are covered by the Washington Federation of State Employees bargaining unit and "we have not required them to cross the picket line if they feel unsafe." While some inspectors "have up until now chosen to do so, there have been times when we have had to use our licensed managerial staff to inspect grain."
If interested parties fail to reach a solution by the first week of September, Hover said in his letter, then the state will notify federal officials that it will stop inspection services "until such time as our safety concerns are remedied."
The solution, Hover said, "must significantly reduce the 'flash-point' vulnerability that currently exists for our grain inspection program staff at the (United Grain) facility."
McCormick said the best way to resolve the problem is for the port to "direct its security personnel to intervene when illegal threats are used to intimidate people whose jobs require them to access the United Grain terminal, but who have no involvement at all in the labor dispute."
In an Aug. 26 letter to Hover, Gary Schuld, CEO of United Grain, said "port officials have failed to provide adequate security" despite evidence of daily intimidation of neutral parties by ILWU pickets. Schuld also said he wished a resolution of the labor dispute were in sight. On July 24, the union proposed a return to the bargaining table, Schuld said, and the grain companies agreed and suggested meeting in late August. "But nearly a month has passed, those days have arrived, and we've had no further contact from the union," Schuld wrote. "That leaves us confused, and doubtful about the union's desire to bargain in good faith."
Union spokeswoman Sargent said she wasn't aware of that correspondence but "I know the union has been trying to get the employer back to the negotiating table for months." She said the union is eager for an agreement that would put people back to work.
Wagner said port security "is doing a good job," including investigating incidents and reporting them to Vancouver police. United Grain and state inspectors need to work together to address their concerns about access to the company's facility, she said. "We don't see that there are inadequacies at this point," Wagner said of the port's handling of the matter.
Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for Vancouver police, said Tuesday that police have met with state Department of Agriculture officials "regarding their concerns and have continued to respond to the port when there have been safety concerns or traffic flow issues."
Kapp said police have been called to the disputed area at the port 19 times since July 1. "Mainly picketers blocking vehicles, some minor vehicle damage and an arrest of a female who made a verbal threat to a replacement worker," Kapp said in describing incidents.
In her Tuesday statement to The Columbian, Sargent said United Grain "brought volatility" to the port "when it locked out generations of local union workers who made the facility profitable and replaced them with non-union replacement workers." She said the company is failing to take responsibility "for its own provocative moves that have led to unsafe conditions, including hiring an out-of-state strikebreaking firm, bringing scab boats and mercenary security guards into our river, and demanding constant passage of vehicles through human picket lines."