Japanese union leader lends support to ILWU

He joins picket line at port, donates $10,000

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Fusao Ohori, a Japanese union leader who'd flown from Tokyo to support locked-out union dockworkers in Vancouver and Portland, leaned in Friday to answer a reporter's questions when the gray van, its windows obscured, suddenly reappeared at the metal gate.

The vehicle had delivered non-union workers to the United Grain Corp. export terminal at the Port of Vancouver a few minutes earlier. Ohori had joined picket longshore workers who have been frozen out of work since late February in a larger contract dispute between International Longshore and Warehouse workers and grain handlers in the Pacific Northwest.

As the van approached, several ILWU members rushed to catch Ohori's attention. Someone handed the visitor a yellow picket sign. Quickly, he joined the union workers at the gate to help send another message to those inside the vehicle.

One of the picketers, having finished marching in front of it, broke an initial silence: "Lord loves a workin' man," he screamed, "but he doesn't love you, scab!"

Friday's event punctuated the tension surrounding a lockout that's been under way for more than three months. It's prompted local government leaders to call for a resolution. It's triggered opposing charges at the National Labor Relations Board. It's given Eastern Washington grain growers jitters about getting their products to market. And it's drawn attention from international labor groups.

'Costs of the lockout'

Ohori, a representative of the All-Japan Seamen's Union, which represents the crews of ships at sea, flew from Tokyo this week to walk picket lines with locked-out longshore workers in Vancouver and Portland.

Along with Ohori's visit, the All-Japan Seamen's Union contributed 1 million yen to the ILWU. That translates to an estimated $10,400. When Ohori announced the amount Friday, outside the port gate, about 18 union dockworkers who'd gathered there clapped their approval.

Longshore workers from Kalama, Longview and Seattle were among the 18 union members who picketed in Vancouver, according to Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the ILWU.

Sargent said in an email that the money donated by the All-Japan Seamen's Union will "help defray the costs of the lockout, including provisions for the picket line, legal representation, fliers and signs."

Ohori visited two picket lines: one at the Port of Vancouver, where United Grain — owned by Tokyo-based Mitsui & Co. — operates a facility, and another at the Port of Portland, where Columbia Grain Inc. — owned by Japan's Marubeni Corp. — runs a grain elevator.

In Vancouver, Ohori read a letter to ILWU workers from Yasumi Morita, vice president of the All-Japan Seamen's Union.

The ILWU faces difficulties "due to unjust treatment and demands by terminal companies in the Pacific Northwest," Ohori said, reading from the statement.

The All-Japan Seamen's Union — an affiliate of the International Transport Workers' Federation — has collective bargaining agreements with many of the ships that call on Columbia River ports, according to a news release issued by the ILWU Friday. The group's leaders have been reminding ship owners that they're legally obligated "not to force" crew members to do longshore work while at U.S. ports.

Meanwhile, a video posted this week to YouTube shows Japanese union officials, gathered outside the headquarters of Marubeni, the Japanese parent of Columbia Grain in Portland, protesting in support of the ILWU.

Ohori said the All-Japan Seamen's Union will continue to support activities in Japan that lend support to the ILWU.

Responding to Ohori's visit to Vancouver and Portland, Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents Northwest grain shippers in their dispute with the ILWU, said in an email: "Flying in guest picketers is no substitute for addressing the primary issue that divides us over a new labor agreement. ILWU agreed to provisions in its labor contracts with our competitors — EGT in Longview and Kalama Export Company in Kalama — that give those operators significant cost and operational advantages."

He went on: "Our ability to compete fairly with them, and to keep the Port of Vancouver's grain export terminal competitive with terminals downriver in Longview and Kalama, requires us to seek terms similar or identical to theirs in our contract with ILWU."

'Support each other'

United Grain, Columbia 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.

The contract dispute intensified Feb. 27, when United Grain locked out 44 dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver 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.

The conflict expanded in early May when Columbia Grain imposed a lockout at its terminal in Portland. Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, said Friday that 50 to 75 dockworkers were frozen out of their jobs in Portland.

Not all of the grain-terminal operators are on the same page, though.

Temco — a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and CHS Inc. — broke off from the Grain Handlers 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 ILWU says the temporary contract it signed with Temco includes concessions but maintains fair workplace policies.

Outside the gate leading to United Grain's facility, Ohori cited that contract as a foundation for resolving the dispute between the ILWU and other grain terminal operators.

Ohori said he was in town to express solidarity with longshore workers. And the ILWU, he said, gave plenty of support and encouragement after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami battered Japan.

"We always support each other," Ohori said.

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