UPDATE: Union workers at Port of Vancouver stage hourlong work stoppage

Dockworkers return to jobs after show of support for locked-out union members

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

Updated: March 7, 2013, 7:56 PM

 

The deadlock between union dockworkers and United Grain Corp. found another boiling point Thursday as both parties clashed over the use of Port of Vancouver property, a morning incident that halted all work at the port for an hour and stirred a fresh round of accusations.

The argument, involving an unknown number of people near United Grain's export terminal, centered on who had the right to use a bollard — located on port-owned property — to tie down and release vessels calling on the port.

Port officials intervened in the matter, asking the company and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to calm down and to work on a solution that will suit everybody involved, said Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the port. The parties agreed. "We're just working through it right now," Wagner said.

No one was cited or arrested, and no other problems cropped up, according to port and Vancouver police officials. However, a lock on a gate involved in the incident was cut. "We know that a lock was cut," Wagner said. "We aren't in a place right now to say who did it."

The Thursday morning skirmish underscored the ongoing tension surrounding United Grain's Feb. 27 decision to lock out 44 union dockworkers. The decision, which the company made after alleging a union official sabotaged equipment and saying it fired the person, followed a months-long disagreement between the two parties over the terms of a new labor contract.

The dispute reached its eighth day Thursday, with the union maintaining picket lines at the port and in downtown Vancouver and with the company using managers and non-union employees to operate the grain-export terminal. "We have not brought in any replacement workers," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents United Grain and two other Pacific Northwest terminal operators in the standoff with the ILWU. But United Grain hasn't ruled out using replacement workers, McCormick said.

The impasse appears to be drawing broader attention as a Facebook post by Occupy Vancouver Washington encouraged people to rally in support of ILWU workers at 10 a.m. today at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver.

Minor delay ensues

The conflict has largely been isolated to United Grain's export terminal at the port, where union members who work for the company under a contract have been frozen out.

But other union dockworkers, who perform other activities at the port under a separate contract, halted work for an hour after the dust-up involving the use of a bollard on port property.

Wagner said that when United Grain personnel attempted to attach a line to the bollard, longshore workers, disagreeing with the move, stepped in to maintain their ability to tie on and release vessels.

The bollard, owned by the port and considered a common area, is not a part of United Grain's leasehold, Wagner said. However, the company has access to the bollard.

Normally, longshore workers would handle the bollard to tie on or release vessels, Wagner said. After the port stepped in to calm things down, Wagner said, United Grain personnel chose not to attach a line to the bollard and the ILWU returned to work.

The work stoppage, which lasted from about 9 to 10 a.m., caused a relatively minor delay in the unloading of Subaru vehicles from a vessel, Wagner said.

But the clash between the union and United Grain prompted both parties to joust publicly in news releases.

Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the ILWU, said in an email it's the union's understanding that United Grain "management and one of their construction contractors cut the lock on the gate" between the company and the port, "and apparently entered the port illegally." She said work stopped temporarily "when longshoremen blocked the intrusion."

In a statement issued Thursday, McCormick said: "United Grain's lease with the Port of Vancouver unambiguously provides (the company) access to the common area involved in today's incident. The presence of (company) personnel in the common area of the port is not a violation of lease terms or a breach of port security."

'Communication challenge'

Wagner said she wouldn't call what happened Thursday morning a security incident. "We really see this as more of a communication challenge than a security issue right now," she said. Wagner said the port is concerned "about the level of coordination we're getting out of" United Grain, although the port believes both parties want to move forward in a positive way.

Wagner said the port continues to talk to the company, the ILWU and authorities, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

Two other Pacific Northwest grain terminal operators are entangled in a disagreement with the union. But no lockout or strikes have occurred at Columbia Grain or Louis Dreyfus Commodities.

The ILWU has asked all three terminal operators to return to the bargaining table in light of a separate agreement the union struck with U.S.-based operator Temco.

In her news release, Sargent said the union is dealing with an attorney for all three terminal operators about potential dates for returning to the bargaining table.

In a phone interview Thursday, McCormick said the group of terminal operators would be happy to relaunch talks. But it wants to first review the Temco contract. The group has asked to review the contract, but the union hasn't provided it, McCormick said.

"Until we have that, we don't have a basis" for new discussions, he said.

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