UPDATE: ILWU files unfair labor practice charge against United Grain

Two sides trade verbal blows as lockout continues

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter



The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against United Grain Corp., describing the company’s lockout of 44 union workers as an “extreme” action. The charge, quickly criticized by a United Grain spokesman, came as the dispute at the Port of Vancouver extended into its seventh day Tuesday.

The ILWU Local 4, which represents about 200 longshore workers in Vancouver, filed the unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday. Ron Hooks, the NLRB’s regional director in Seattle, said the agency’s investigation of the charge may take up to a month to complete. Settlements, appeals and monetary penalties also may be involved if the charge is upheld, he said. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — which represents three export terminal operators, including United Grain — called the union’s complaint “unfounded.”

The union’s charge against United Grain comes as the company pursues a lawsuit against Todd Walker, an ILWU official in Vancouver, alleging he caused more than $300,000 worth of damage to the company’s equipment.

The company froze out 44 union dockworkers on Feb. 27 after alleging sabotage by Walker and saying it had fired him. The union has denied any wrongdoing on the part of any of its members. The Vancouver Police Department is investigating.

The ILWU and United Grain are deadlocked over the terms of a new labor contract, with the union maintaining picket lines and the company operating its terminal with non-union labor. Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said no problems have occurred.

‘Minimize’ situation

The dispute in Vancouver has caught the attention of farmers in Eastern Washington and of the international buyers who purchase the grain they grow.

Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said Tuesday overseas grain shipments are flowing unimpeded despite the dispute in Vancouver. But international grain buyers, seeking the best prices, don’t like the potential risk of a big slowdown leaving ships unloaded and jacking up prices, Squires said. And they have the option of going somewhere else, such as Canada, to buy grain.

That’s why Northwest export terminal operators are “trying to minimize” the situation to buyers, Squires said, emphasizing that they remain open for business.

Indeed, the dispute remains isolated to the United Grain terminal. The company’s managers and non-union employees are running operations there. Other activities at the port are being handled by union dockworkers who are doing their jobs under a separate contract with the Pacific Maritime Association.

But Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities also are entangled in a disagreement with the union. No lockouts or strikes have occurred at those sites.

The ILWU has asked United Grain and the other two terminal operators to return to the bargaining table in light of a separate agreement the union struck with U.S.-based operator Temco. The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association has said it’s considering how it will respond to that request this week.

On Tuesday, the union and the Grain Handlers Association exchanged fire over the union’s unfair labor complaint. They also clashed over United Grain’s ownership by a Japanese conglomerate.

According to the union’s complaint, United Grain “took the extreme measure of locking out its entire bargaining unit even though by its own statements it had identified and terminated the employee allegedly responsible for the property damage (that the company claimed took place on December 22 — 5 days before its unilateral implementation of its final offer).”

The action “constituted loss of employment based on anti-union animus, and a sweeping unilateral change of terms and conditions of employment,” according to the complaint.

In a statement responding to the union’s complaint, McCormick said United Grain will cooperate with the NLRB’s investigation of “ILWU’s unfounded complaint.” He went on: The NLRB’s “case law has recognized, for decades, an employer’s right to lock out employees in response to incidents of sabotage like those that have occurred at United Grain Corporation.”

United Grain is a subsidiary of Mitsui & Co. Ltd., a global trading company headquartered in Tokyo. In a statement issued Tuesday, Robert McEllrath, a Vancouver-based Longshoreman who is ILWU international president, said it’s “shameful that Mitsui-United Grain, a Japanese corporation that’s profiting from the United States’ infrastructure, natural resources and labor, has chosen to violate our federal law instead of negotiating a fair labor agreement with its American workforce.”

McCormick said it’s unfortunate that the ILWU, in its unfair labor charge and in its news releases, “keeps referring to ‘Mitsui-United Grain Corporation.’ ” He went on: “As previously described, the United Grain Corporation of Oregon has been operated and managed for more than 40 years by local Oregon and Washington residents. The union’s constant reference to the parent company is a blatant attempt to try to confuse the public about the dispute and the parties involved.”