UPDATE: Union dockworkers protest outside Port of Vancouver's administrative building

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

Updated: July 3, 2013, 6:35 PM

 

More than 20 union dockworkers gathered outside the Port of Vancouver’s administrative offices early Wednesday morning to protest what they view as an unfair decision by the port to get police involved in an incident that occurred last week.

At issue was the port’s decision June 28 to ask Vancouver police to cite four members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for trespassing in a secure marine-terminal area on the west side of United Grain Corp.’s facility. But the union says a larger issue is the port’s decision to maintain neutrality in the bitter labor dispute rather than offering support to locked-out workers.

The union also says it had the right to station four members on port property to show its disapproval of United Grain’s use of a temporary gate there. The port says the union had no business being there and that it gave the four workers plenty of time to leave before calling police.

The flap is the latest development in a larger, months-long dispute between the union and grain terminal operators in Washington and Oregon. The situation threatens to open a rift between the ILWU and the Port of Vancouver, which has sought to remain neutral.

The port’s impartial stance is typical among ports in Washington that have faced similar labor battles, according to Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association. “Ports generally do not get involved in a dispute between tenants and their workers,” he said. “Typically, they just focus on the safety of everyone involved.”

But Cager Clabaugh, president of ILWU Local 4, said Wednesday the Port of Vancouver should instead take the side of American workers who’ve been frozen out of their jobs by a foreign-owned company that benefits from the port’s publicly-funded expansion efforts.

‘You have to have a purpose’

Early Wednesday morning, about 26 ILWU members took positions along the driveway leading to the port’s administrative building. They didn’t block the entrance. They carried signs and waved at drivers who honked their horns in support as traffic thundered along Northwest Lower River Road.

Clabaugh, who carried a sign (“They took our tax and gave us the ax!”), said United Grain is barred from using both a temporary access point, where the four workers protested near Northwest Harborside Drive, and the port’s main gate at West 26th Avenue. The four union members protested peacefully on port property and were arrested “for free speech,” Clabaugh said.

Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager, said the port followed legal precedent in allowing a general contractor and subcontractors to United Grain to use the access point and the port’s main gate for a limited time.

The companies collected equipment that belonged to them, Wagner said. The equipment was left over from a construction project performed for United Grain. The contractor and subcontractors hauled the equipment away using the port’s main gate, Wagner said. And they were considered neutral parties in the dispute between United Grain and the union.

The problem was that the four union workers were in a secure marine-terminal area, governed by U.S. Coast Guard and port policies, Wagner said. To be in that area, she said, “you have to have a purpose, and it has to be work-related. They weren’t there for an appropriate purpose.”

The emerging rift between the port and the ILWU illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the larger contract dispute between the ILWU and United Grain. That dispute intensified on Feb. 27, when the company locked out 44 dockworkers at the port after it alleged a union official sabotaged equipment. The union has denied wrongdoing, and the Clark County prosecuting attorney hasn’t yet decided whether to file criminal charges.

The Longshore union has been at odds with United Grain and two other Northwest terminal operators — Columbia Grain and LD Commodities — that are part of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. The companies operate a total of four grain-export terminals in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle.

In May, Columbia Grain imposed a lockout at its terminal in Portland. The union says that lockout cut 50 to 75 workers out of their jobs.

Initially, another grain terminal operator, Temco, negotiated with the ILWU as a member of the Grain Handlers Association. But Temco, a U.S.-based operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama, broke away from the group to negotiate directly with union dockworkers.

Temco — a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and CHS Inc. — subsequently signed a temporary contract with the ILWU.

Workers ‘very polite’

Since the larger dispute boiled over, the Port of Vancouver has consistently said it’s a neutral party committed to maintaining fair rules of engagement between the union and United Grain in hopes of keeping things safe and the port open for business.

Early on, the port designated one specific area — Gate 2 on the port’s eastside — where the union would be allowed to set up pickets and where United Grain personnel would have access to the company’s site.

On June 26, an attorney for Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, which represents the port, sent a letter to Clabaugh saying a United Grain contractor and subcontractors would be temporarily allowed to use the port’s main gate from 6 a.m. June 28 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

If the union failed to “confine any picketing” to the area designated by the port, attorney Michael Garone warned in his letter, legal action might be taken.

On June 28, four ILWU members showed up at the temporary access point to protest its use by a United Grain contractor and subcontractors.

And the union chose to show up at the temporary access point, rather than the main gate, to avoid gumming up port business, Clabaugh said. The four union members didn’t block anyone’s entrance and didn’t say anything, he said. Two of them held signs. The other two were there as observers.

Wagner, the port’s communications manager, said the port gave the union members three hours to leave the site. They didn’t, so the port called Vancouver police to have them cited for trespassing.

Two of the union members chose to take their trespass citations and leave, Wagner said. The other two said they would not leave unless they were arrested. Police arrested both.

Wagner said the two union workers who refused to leave unless they were arrested were “very polite.” Wagner said the port has acted only in a clear and evenhanded manner in handling the dispute between the union and United Grain. “We are treating both parties fairly,” she said. “We are treating them equally. We are doing our very best to move through this in a positive way.”

Clabaugh said the port should take the side of Longshore members, American workers who’ve agreed, when asked by the port, to vocally support its taxpayer-funded projects. “We want our port to expand,” Clabaugh said. But the port’s decision to involve the police last week, and to maintain an impartial stance in the dispute, shows that “as soon as they get what they need, they just cut us loose,” he said.

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