In our view: Intimidation Must Not Win

Labor dispute at port should not be reduced to thuglike tactics

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As the months-long dispute between local longshore workers and United Grain continues to fester at the Port of Vancouver, intimidation tactics must not be allowed to influence the standoff.

As reported by Aaron Corvin in Wednesday's edition of The Columbian, the state Department of Agriculture has served notice that it will halt grain inspections at the port unless steps are taken to improve safety as its inspectors cross picket lines to conduct their work.

Department Director Don Hover claims that inspectors have faced intimidation, including one instance in which a picketer opened a vehicle door, yelled obscenities at an inspector, and kicked the door shut. Hover said the vulnerability of inspectors is exacerbated by limited physical access to the area near the gate, potential significant wait time for Vancouver police to arrive, and inadequate capacity for port officers to intervene. "More staff are feeling unsafe in crossing the picket lines and are opting not to do so," Hover wrote.

Of course, any allegation of intimidation tactics is open to interpretation, but the union's response in this matter is telling. Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, 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."

• United Grain 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."

Therein lies the problem. Rather than stressing that intimidation — particularly toward workers who have nothing to do with the dispute — will not be tolerated, Sargent tried to lay the blame at the foot of the company. She attempted to deflect the issue rather than addressing the latest twist in the standoff.

This not only is wrong-headed, it is not wise from the union's perspective. The solution for any labor dispute can be found at the bargaining table; it cannot be found in lockouts or pickets or replacement workers or intimidation tactics, even if those tactics often are viewed as a means to an end.

By attempting to tacitly justify the intimidation, the union merely weakens its position and creates more intransigence on both sides of the issue. If the company returns to the bargaining table now — something that both sides claim they have requested — it will be viewed as having been influenced by such tactics. That could leave United Grain vulnerable the next time it becomes embroiled in a labor dispute.

Negotiations between the ILWU and United Grain started a year ago, and on Feb. 27, the company locked out 44 workers at the Port of Vancouver. Since then, apparently, little progress has been made toward a solution and the conflict has only intensified. Thus far, it has been free of the violence that sometimes marks prolonged labor disputes, but Hover stressed that in order for his inspectors to continue their work, the solution "must significantly reduce the 'flash-point' vulnerability that currently exists."

We agree. And union officials must recognize that any flash-point conflict will reflect poorly upon their position and their tactics. Regardless of how the union feels about the actions of the company, inappropriate behavior on the part of picketers will only weaken its bargaining position and must be condemned. If we are to be a civil society ruled by laws and not thuggery, intimidation must not win.