Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is urging the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver to settle their monthslong dispute, saying the bitter battle “has the potential of damaging the long-term reputation of Washington ports and has negatively impacted both the workers and the company.”
In a July 11 letter obtained Friday by The Columbian, the Democratic governor expresses his concerns to Gary Schuld, CEO of United Grain, and Cager Clabaugh, president of the ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver. “While I appreciate the patience and restraint that both parties have shown to date, we need to have talks that lead toward developing an equitable, long-term solution to this dispute,” Inslee wrote. “I strongly encourage both sides to renew a constructive dialogue on addressing the outstanding issues. Re-engaging the federal mediator would be an important first step in this regard.”
The governor’s letter underscores the gravity of 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 similar to Inslee’s from national and local political leaders, and triggered concerns on the part of Eastern Washington grain growers who worry about getting their products to overseas markets.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Friday that Inslee’s letter is a reaffirmation of his hope that “both parties continue to work on this.” However, she said, it shouldn’t be taken as a ratcheting-up of his involvement in the dispute.
In the letter, Inslee cites a temporary contract agreement between the ILWU and Temco — an operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama — as an example that progress can be made in Vancouver. “We know that common ground can be met with good faith bargaining as shown by the Temco agreement and hope similar negotiations and progress can be made here,” Inslee wrote.
Schuld, CEO of United Grain, responded to Inslee in a July 16 letter, rejecting the Temco agreement as a model for future talks. Schuld said Temco voluntarily left the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association in December to seek its own deal with the ILWU. And that deal is temporary, Schuld said, with a contingency clause allowing it to be changed to include beneficial changes the union may accept in a contract with the remaining members of the Grain Handlers Association.
“It’s a straw man,” Schuld wrote to Inslee, “not a substantive basis for a labor agreement.”
Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said Friday that Temco is the largest of the grain exporters, with three West Coast elevators, “making their agreement with the ILWU the industry standard.”
The Grain Handlers Association, whose membership includes United Grain, has said its members need more flexibility in workplace rules to compete on a level playing field with other grain exporters. They say their contract offer meets standards elsewhere and includes a generous compensation package for union members.
In his letter to Inslee, Schuld repeated that position, saying United Grain would be satisfied with any of three contract options, including one similar to terms the ILWU signed with terminal operators in Longview and Kalama.
Schuld said Inslee’s predecessor, former Gov. Chris Gregoire, helped broker a deal between the longshore union and Export Grain Terminal in Longview that is “fair to ILWU workers and beneficial to EGT.”
The union counters that the Grain Handlers Association’s proposed contract severely undercuts the union’s ability to maintain fair workplace standards and family-wage jobs. In a Friday email to The Columbian, Sargent said the “EGT agreement is a first contract.” And the contract that was in place before the Grain Handlers Association tried to impose new terms “dates back to 1932,” she said.
Sargent said the reality is that the “grain conglomerates do not compete with each other, and indeed move their products through each other’s facilities.”
Lockout, pickets go on
The discord between the ILWU and United Grain intensified Feb. 27, when 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.
Since then, the union has maintained pickets outside the United Grain facility and near the company’s headquarters in downtown Vancouver. United Grain is operating with replacement workers. Pat McCormick, spokeswman for the Grain Handlers Association, said in May that United Grain had increased its use of replacement workers “alongside its own management and office employees to maintain full operation” at its grain-export facility.
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 Grain Handlers Association. The companies operate 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, Temco negotiated with the ILWU as a member of the Grain Handlers Association. But the company, 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.