Union, grain firms remain deadlocked

Vancouver, port leaders urge labor group, terminal operators to end battle

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoInternational Longshore and Warehouse Union members picket Thursday outside the United Grain terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

()

More than three months in, the standoff between union dockworkers and United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver shows no signs of letting up, even as Vancouver political leaders urge both parties to end the bitter battle.

Although its workers have been locked out at both United Grain and Columbia Grain Inc. in Portland, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said Thursday that it's winning support from labor groups across the globe. That show of support, the ILWU said, includes recent protests in Canada and Hong Kong, and letters to the CEO of Mitsui & Co. -- the Tokyo-based parent of United Grain -- from the International Transport Workers' Federation and from Hong Kong labor groups.

Ray Familathe, the union's international vice president for the mainland, said in a Thursday statement to The Columbian that he's "traveled to Japan, Australia and Hong Kong, and everywhere I go, union workers send enthusiastic messages of solidarity to the longshoremen and women who are locked out in Vancouver and Portland."

The ILWU and United Grain are at odds over a new labor contract as part of a larger conflict between grain terminal operators and union dockworkers in the Pacific Northwest. The clash intensified Feb. 27, when United Grain 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 is weighing whether to file criminal charges.

Meanwhile, local government leaders have urged a return to the bargaining table. In a letter to both parties last month, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt wrote that "emotions and tensions due to this drawn-out standoff are rising and altercations are becoming more frequent. This strained work environment may lead to unintended and unfortunate consequences for all involved."

International group steps in

The Northern View, a newspaper based in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, reported Tuesday that members of ILWU Canada, Grain Workers Union and the Prince Rupert Labor Council held

an informational picket to protest the arrival of the King Felipe, which "was loaded at the Vancouver Washington grain terminal …" The newspaper quoted a union worker saying he doesn't want any more vessels "loaded with scab labor in the U.S. and brought to Canada."

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents Northwest grain shippers including United Grain, said the ship was not loaded at United Grain. "The King Felipe was partially loaded at Columbia Grain's facility at the Port of Portland's Terminal 5," he said in an email to The Columbian. Parenthetically, McCormick wrote, "ILWU could use a fact-checker."

In response to McCormick's statement, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said the Canadian workers thought the vessel came from United Grain. She said McCormick's statement is a distraction from the issue that grain terminal operators "are using replacement workers to load ships at Columbia Grain and United Grain during their lockouts."

In late May, the International Transport Workers' Federation stepped into the fray, sending a letter to Masami Iijima, president and CEO of Mitsui & Co. The organization, which represents about 700 unions worldwide encompassing more than 4.5 million transport workers, said it considers the lockout in Vancouver, based on an accusation against "a single union worker," to be an "unnecessarily heavy handed action."

The Union of Hong Kong Dockers and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions — both connected to the International Transport Workers' Federation — said in a separate letter to Mitsui that the lockout appears to be "an anti-union attack and a direct attempt to avoid negotiating with them over a new collective-bargaining agreement."

Dispute expands

The protests and letters add yet more layers to a conflict that's being waged at local, state and federal levels. For example, the ILWU and United Grain have exchanged charges and countercharges at the National Labor Relations Board. Regionally, the dispute expanded in early May when Columbia Grain Inc. imposed a lockout at its terminal in Portland.

Columbia Grain, United Grain, LD Commodities and Temco are part of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. The companies operate six grain terminals in Puget Sound and along the Columbia River, which handle more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports.

The current contract between the grain handlers and the ILWU expired at the end of September. However, Temco — a joint venture between Cargill, Inc. and CHS Inc. — broke off from the association to sign a new, temporary contract with the ILWU. Still, a union attorney has said that any final agreement between the ILWU and the Grain Handlers Association would override the union's temporary agreement with Temco.

The Grain Handlers Association has said it wants more flexibility in workplace rules to compete on a level playing field with other grain exporters. The group says its final contract offer, made in December, is largely the same as terms the ILWU agreed to at grain-export terminals in Longview and Kalama. The union counters that the companies' proposed contract guts the union's ability to represent workers on a variety of workplace matters. The ILWU says the temporary contract it signed with Temco includes concessions but maintains fair workplace policies.

Replacement workers

In a statement last month, McCormick said United Grain recently increased its use of replacement workers "alongside its own management and office employees to maintain full operation" at the Port of Vancouver. Meanwhile, the ILWU has maintained pickets near United Grain's facility at the port and near the company's offices in downtown Vancouver.

As the ILWU and grain handlers lock horns, local government leaders are urging them to cool off and return to the bargaining table.

In a recent letter to both parties, the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners wrote that the conflict has the potential to severely upset the local economy and global trade. "Excessive delays and disruptions hurt our region's global reputation and can cause cargoes to be rerouted to other countries and other regions of the U.S.," Commissioners Jerry Oliver, Brian Wolfe and Nancy Baker wrote.

Likewise, Leavitt wrote to both parties, saying he believes "there is leadership on both sides of the dispute capable of finding a path through this challenging situation and we strongly encourage you to resume your discussions."

Responding to Leavitt, United Grain vice president Gary Schuld wrote that the grain shippers remain prepared to reach a new agreement with the ILWU. However, the "deliberate sabotage of critical terminal equipment triggered our decision to lock out workers," Schuld wrote. "We have a right to protect the safety of our employees and our property, as well as a right to seek a fair contract. Since the lockout, UGC has operated safely, maintained full operations and significantly improved productivity."

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