Union asks grain operators for more talks

Inslee takes interest in Day 3 of lockout at Port of Vancouver

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Union dockworkers and United Grain Corp. launched a fresh round of maneuverings Friday over their three-day standoff at the Port of Vancouver. Developments included a letter — obtained by The Columbian — that was sent by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to United Grain and other grain terminal operators. The letter urged the terminal operators to return to the bargaining table sometime in the next two weeks in light of a separate deal the ILWU struck with another company.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, confirmed that union representatives met with Gov. Jay Inslee in Olympia on Friday. Details of the conversation were unavailable, and a union representative declined to comment on what was discussed. Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said the governor plans to speak with the grain terminal operators, too.

The developments came as the standoff between the ILWU and United Grain Corp. over a new labor contract continued, with the union maintaining picket lines, the company using nonunion labor to operate its terminal and questions flying over the stalemate's potential impacts on overseas agricultural exports.

'Industry standards'

In the ILWU's Feb. 27 letter to an attorney for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — the group representing United Grain and other terminals — Leal Sundet, an ILWU coast committeeman, says the union's agreement with the grain shipper Temco "signifies the union's commitment to reaching a deal that maintains American industry standards and working conditions while addressing the concerns that the (grain) elevator operators bring to the table."

Sundet says the union is available in early March to renegotiate contract terms with the Grain Handlers Association, which represents United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said Friday the group will meet next week to discuss its response to the ILWU's letter. McCormick said that, based on previous news releases by the union, the ILWU's contract with Temco is subject to change. "To create this kind of illusory agreement with Temco," which isn't final, "isn't really staking a new position as far as what the standards (are) for contracts in this region," McCormick said.

Cager Clabaugh, president of the ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, said the union made concessions to U.S.-based Temco — a joint venture between Cargill, Inc and CHS Inc. — including eliminating two union positions that managers will now take over and extending union work shifts from 10 hours to 12 hours.

"We had to make concessions, but we feel confident that the contract does what it's supposed to do and both sides can live with it," Clabaugh said.

He said the contract with Temco is better than the one offered by United Grain and the others. That contract pushes for too many employer-friendly concessions, Clabaugh said, and would gut the union's ability to represent workers.

Operations continue

The deadlock follows the decision by United Grain on Wednesday to lock out up to 44 dockworkers after it alleged a union official sabotaged the company's equipment. The company says it fired the person. The union denies any wrongdoing. Vancouver police continue to investigate the matter.

Clabaugh said United Grain has already brought in replacement workers so it can maintain operations at its terminal at the Port of Vancouver. "They're running," he said, adding that it's unclear how many nonunion workers the company is using.

McCormick said the company's work force is probably smaller than it would normally have if it still had union dockworkers. Nevertheless, he said, the company has "a full complement" of workers "who are needed to safely operate all of the equipment."

Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the Port of Vancouver, said Friday that "Things continue to move along" at the port, including a ship unloading vehicles and another vessel that was taking on bentonite clay. With the exception of United Grain's facility — where nonunion workers are operating equipment — union dockworkers are performing all other work at the port, Wagner said.

Indeed, the standoff has so far been isolated to United Grain's grain elevator, as no strikes or lockouts have occurred at other grain-export terminals in the region that are part of the overall dispute over a new labor contract.

The Pacific Northwest has nine grain shipping terminals, with two in Puget Sound and seven along the Columbia River. At issue is a dispute over a new labor contract between the ILWU and three companies — United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — that operate a total of four grain-export terminals in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle.

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports, including nearly half the nation's wheat exports, move through Columbia River and Puget Sound grain terminals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On average, about 3.2 million metric tons of grain moves through the Port of Vancouver annually. And about 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports comes through the port.

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