United Grain Corp. accuses ILWU of sabotage, locks out workers (with video)

Union calls accusation unfounded

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

Updated: February 27, 2013, 6:45 PM

 
photoNearly 50 workers picket outside the main entrance to the Port of Vancouver on Feb. 27, 2013. The morning lockout of union dockworkers at the port followed a period of quiet after months of contentious negotiations in 2012 between the union and three of four operators of grain export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
photoAbout 50 workers protested outside the main entrance to the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday.

(/The Columbian)

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United Grain Corp. locked out up to 44 union dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday, saying it did so in response to an investigation showing a union member sabotaged the company’s equipment. The union denied any wrongdoing and accused the company of making up a story to use as a pretext to freeze out workers.

The lockout by United Grain — following months of contentious negotiations between it and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — triggered a fresh round of finger-pointing and prompted union picket lines. It left the port with no longshore workers, which marooned a ship aiming to unload more than 1,800 Subaru vehicles at a port dock and prevented the loading of wheat onto another ship for export.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — a group of grain shippers that includes United Grain — said the company on Tuesday fired the union worker it alleges damaged equipment and then notified the union of the lockout Wednesday morning.

Jennifer Sargent, an ILWU spokeswoman, issued a statement Wednesday saying United Grain and its Japanese owner, Mitsui, have “fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they’ve wanted to do all along, which is to lock workers out instead of reach a fair agreement with them.”

The flap comes after the union and three of four grain Pacific Northwest terminal operators failed to reach an agreement over a new labor contract after the current one expired at the end of September. The next steps, and potential long-term impacts, are unclear. One long-standing concern, raised by Eastern Washington grain growers and others, is to what extent the dispute will slow the shipment of billions of dollars worth of agricultural products to overseas locations.

The situation isn’t entirely fractured: Even as the dispute in Vancouver boiled over, the longshore union said Wednesday it reached a new labor agreement with Temco LLC — a U.S.-based operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama. Temco was originally a member of the group representing United Grain and two other terminal operators in failed talks with the ILWU. The union said a final agreement with Temco — a joint venture between Cargill, Inc and CHS Inc. — will be signed and implemented March 9.

Rick Anderson, a labor relations committee member for ILWU who was among some 50 workers who picketed at the main entrance to the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday, said the deal with Temco shows the union is willing to open fresh talks with United Grain, too. “We want to get back to the table and bargain and they’re not interested,” he said.

McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, countered that the grain handlers have long offered the union a fair and generous contract, only to have it rejected. He said separate, more employer-friendly contracts the ILWU signed with terminal operators in Longview and Kalama left three terminal operators — United Grain in Vancouver, Columbia Grain in Portland and Louis Dreyfus Commodities in Seattle and Portland — at a competitive disadvantage. The Kalama Export Co. terminal is separate from the Kalama terminal operated by Temco that was included in the agreement announced Wednesday.

“We’d be happy to sign the agreement the union signed” with Kalama Export Co. and with Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, McCormick said.

‘We don’t know about tomorrow’

The lockout by United Grain followed months of contentious, failed negotiations that produced a volatile situation: United Grain and others said they’d enforce the contract they wanted, while the union, which had rejected the contract on the grounds that it was a workplace power grab, said it would go back to work anyway.

On Wednesday, the lockout ensued. A Port of Vancouver spokeswoman said union picketers acted peacefully and that the port experienced no safety or property problems.

The standoff left a vessel loaded with Subaru vehicles unable to offload its cargo at the port and prevented another ship from taking on a load of wheat, according to Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager.

In the case of the Subaru vehicles, union workers would normally drive the vehicles off the ship and onto the port’s docks, she said. But the vessel is “sitting there and will sit there today. We don’t know about tomorrow.”

Union picketers were stationed at the port’s main gate and at its east gate, which is used only by United Grain.

McCormick said United Grain had not yet brought in non-union replacement workers. He said the company will deploy replacement workers, as well as managers, to do the work, but he didn’t know when that would happen.

McCormick said of the three grain terminal operators that are at odds with the union, two — United Grain and Columbia Grain in Portland — are currently active. The Portland and Seattle facilities of the third operator — Louis Dreyfus Commodities — are offline for unrelated improvements, McCormick said. He said he didn’t think Columbia Grain in Portland had locked out workers. “We had a specific triggering event” in Vancouver, he said, in reference to what he called “clear evidence of sabotage.”

An attorney for United Grain, Richard Alli, sent a letter Wednesday to union leaders outlining the company’s reasons for locking out workers. Alli said the company, over the past several months, experienced an “unusually large” number of suspicious incidents involving equipment failure and damage. As a result, it hired a former FBI investigator, who is not identified in Alli’s letter, to probe the matter.

The investigator’s report found credible evidence that two “suspicious events” were the result of an effort by a member of ILWU’s Vancouver Local 4 unit — who is also a member of the union’s bargaining team — to “sabotage and destroy company property,” according to Alli. His letter does not name the union member.

The letter goes on: “The two incidents in question involve the deliberate introduction of a metal pipe approximately two feet long into (United Grain’s) conveyor system as well as the intentional introduction of a sand and water mixture into the railcar progressor at (United Grain) …”

Alli added, “These criminal acts will not be tolerated by” United Grain.

‘Unfounded charges’

In statements issued Wednesday, the union and the company jousted over the alleged sabotage and other matters. Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, referring to United Grain’s foreign ownership, said it’s “no coincidence that Mitsui-United Grain has chosen to throw out unfounded charges by an unnamed ‘investigator’ just days after the union membership ratified an agreement with Mistui-United Grain’s American competitors at Temco in Portland, Kalama and Tacoma.”

McCormick countered with another news release, saying that while Mitsui USA is United Grain’s parent corporation, United Grain “is an Oregon corporation” run by Oregon and Washington residents. He said Mitsui USA “is not involved in the day-to-day management of (United Grain)” and has no role in the labor negotiations or the company’s relationship with the union.

In a joint news release issued by the union and Temco announcing their labor agreement, Robert McEllrath, the ILWU’s international president, said “the agreement was achieved because American companies, farmers and workers recognize a common interest in our country’s resources and economic well-being. That common interest is not reflected in the grain companies that have unilaterally implemented a contract that undermines American working standards at their competing facilities.”

Paul Butters, Temco’s general manager, said in the news release: “We appreciate the constructive approach that the ILWU leadership provided in reaching this agreement, which is good for U.S. farmers and global customers who seek U.S. products.”

Salary and benefits weren’t the holdup in the earlier talks between the ILWU and the grain shippers. Rather, the employers wanted to implement workplace rules they consider more advantageous.

Their contract offer contains numerous employer-friendly provisions, including letting employers go to court to end work stoppages immediately and allowing supervisors to perform work during health-and-safety disputes, or if the union hiring hall can’t supply enough qualified grain handlers.

Those provisions would also make it easier for terminal operators to hire non-union workers.

McCormick said the terminal operators believe their best and final contract offer is “at least as generous and exceeds the level of our competitors’ agreements.” He added, “Our hope would be that we find a path to resolution and we can continue to operate without this kind of cloud hanging over our operations.”

Outside the Port of Vancouver’s entrance Wednesday, about 50 union workers held signs — “ILWU Locked Out UGC Unfair” — to draw attention to their beef with United Grain Corp.

Anderson, the ILWU labor relations committee member who was among the picketers at the port, said the union didn’t want to strike but has been prepared to do so since September, when it printed its picket signs. Now, he said, the picketing will last “indefinitely.”

“I don’t care if it takes five years,” Anderson said. “If anything, we’re stubborn.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com

Staff writer Emily Gillespie contributed to this story