Longshore union objects to Coast Guard plan

It says expansion of safety zones would interfere with on-water picketing

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is objecting to the U.S. Coast Guard's expansion of safety zones around certain vessels on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The union says the new temporary zones would encroach on its free speech rights and hand grain terminal operators an "undue advantage" in their dispute with the ILWU.

"The sweeping safety zones proposed by the Coast Guard here will prevent ILWU members from exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest in support of their ongoing labor negotiations," Robert Lavitt, an attorney for the union, wrote in a July 3 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Docket Management Facility.

Lt. Regina Caffrey, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, said the changes to the zones ensure the safety of protestors and other river users. "The Coast Guard respects the First Amendment rights of protesters," she said in an email to The Columbian. "In preparing this rule, the Coast Guard carefully considered the rights of lawful protestors."

At issue are temporary safety zones aimed at keeping demonstrators a certain distance away from grain-hauling vessels calling on grain terminal operators, including United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver. A previous Coast Guard rule "regulated only grain shipment vessels," according to Lavitt. The new proposal regulates both grain shipment boats and their assist vessels. It adds vessels that do business with Louis Dreyfus Commodities to the list of ships subject to the rules.

The new rules enlarge the safety zones in several ways, including creating a "200-yard radius of grain shipment vessels when anchored at any berth, moored or in the process of mooring" on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, according to Lavitt.

The union's on-water picketing activities "are aimed at announcing the existence of a picket line to incoming vessels and grain shipment assist vessels that may choose to honor the picket line," Lavitt wrote. "By prohibiting demonstrators from coming anywhere near incoming vessels, the safety zones effectively prevent the ILWU from conveying its message to its intended audience."

The new zones, slated to last until Sept. 3, would apply to inbound and outbound grain vessels calling on United Grain, Columbia Grain, and Temco and Louis Dreyfus facilities.

Caffrey said protest vessels have complied with Coast Guard directions during the months-long labor dispute, except for two incidents in which a protest ship moved in front of a grain boat and put both vessels in potential danger. In both cases, the Coast Guard escorted the protest ship from the safety zone and issued a citation.

The Longshore union has been at odds with United Grain and two other Northwest terminal operators — Columbia Grain and LD Commodities — over contract terms, including workplace rules. The companies are part of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. They operate a total of four grain-export terminals in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. Longshore workers have been locked out at the United Grain and Columbia Grain facilities.

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