A heavy police presence watched over ILWU Local 4 supporters as they held signs outside the main gate to United Grain on Wednesday in Vancouver.
Nine weeks in, the dispute between union dockworkers and United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver is escalating, with the union accusing the company of bringing in replacement workers and with Vancouver police reporting harassment and other charges against members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
In a statement issued to The Columbian, Cager Clabaugh, president of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, said “our local jobs” have been “handed to workers” brought in from Florida and Wisconsin. “We pay local taxes and spend locally, but the replacement workers take their money out of state.”
In an early morning incident at the port Wednesday, involving a large showing of Vancouver police, several vehicles entered the United Grain site, including a semi truck, a red car, and a white van. The van’s windows were obscured, and a sticker on the rear window contained an obscenity. Union supporters speculate that vans like this one are being used to transport replacement workers from a hotel near the Westfield Vancouver mall.
At times, ILWU picketers shouted at people inside the vehicles. They also jotted down information about the vehicles and videotaped them. Written on at least one of the ILWU’s picket signs was this: “Go Home Scab!”
In March, a spokesman for United Grain said the company hasn’t brought in replacement workers but hadn’t ruled it out. On Tuesday, Pat McCormick, the spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents United Grain and other terminal operators in the dispute with the ILWU, said the United Grain facility is “operating normally with UGC management and non-represented staff.” He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Meanwhile, some area church leaders have entered the fray in support of union dockworkers. They say they’ve collected about 50 signatures of church members for a petition they will present to the city of Vancouver and United Grain. The petition says, in part, that “we will not be silent as another corporation seeks to create a world that hurts people for the sake of profit.” They’ve also made early morning visits to the Holiday Inn Express hotel, where they believe replacement workers are staying.
Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said there was no illegal activity during Wednesday’s early-morning incident at the port, where an estimated 10 union picketers gathered. However, she said, since Feb. 27, when United Grain locked out 44 dockworkers, police have generated 27 reports based on incidents connected to the dispute. She said “a couple of dozen charges” against ILWU members, including for criminal harassment, have been forwarded to the city attorney’s office for review. Kapp said that, since the lockout began, two ILWU members have been arrested and booked into jail for pedestrian interference.
Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said it’s her understanding that there have been five citations and two arrests, “all misdemeanors.” She added: “Each of the workers has pled not guilty, and each one will be vigorously defended.”
The ILWU and United Grain are at odds over the terms of a new labor contract as part of a larger conflict between grain-terminal operators and union dockworkers in the Pacific Northwest. The brouhaha intensified on Feb. 27, when United Grain locked out 44 dockworkers at the port after it alleged a union official sabotaged equipment. The union has denied any wrongdoing, and the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney is weighing whether to file criminal charges. The alleged incident of sabotage is among the 27 police reports cited by Kapp.
United Grain and other terminal operators have said they need more flexibility in workplace rules to compete on a level playing field with other grain exporters. They say their contract offer meets standards elsewhere and includes a generous compensation package for union members.
The union counters that the companies’ proposed contract severely undercuts the union’s ability to represent workers on a variety of workplace matters. The ILWU says a temporary contract it signed with another grain terminal operator — Temco — includes concessions but maintains fair workplace policies.
On Wednesday morning, the ongoing dispute ratcheted up and broadened in its scope.
Vancouver police showed up in force near a gate at the Port of Vancouver, used for United Grain business, in preparation for a large gathering of protesters who oppose the company’s lockout of union workers.
Kapp said police, who arrived on the port’s east side with a dozen patrol cars and two motorcyles, were focused on maintaining public safety, especially in light of Wednesday being May Day — a national holiday around the world with ties to labor advocacy.
“We were just prepared for that, given the fact that we have had this dispute going on in our community already,” Kapp said.
Police had also arrived early Wednesday morning at the Holiday Inn Express near the Westfield Vancouver mall, according to Kapp. “We were out there to see if there (were) any issues since there had been a group out there last week,” Kapp wrote in an email to the Columbian. “There was nothing noteworthy today.”
Kapp said the group at the Holiday Inn included ILWU picketers. She said police were there to make sure roadways were accessible and that vehicles weren’t delayed.
‘Not taking any side’
The Rev. Jeremy Lucas of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Battle Ground said he was at the Holiday Inn on Wednesday morning when police arrived. Although he wasn’t at the hotel a week ago, when ILWU workers arrived outside the hotel to protest replacement workers who are staying there, another church leader was there, and it’s Lucas’ understanding that Vancouver police arrived in “an extraordinary show of force,” with 37 police cars and 50 police officers.
The police who arrived at the hotel Wednesday morning had “riot gear and zip ties and helmets,” Lucas said. He said police have arrested ILWU members for “silly things” such as pedestrian interference. “It seems like the city of Vancouver and Vancouver police … have decided they are going to get involved in this dispute in a way that hurts people in their own community,” Lucas said.
Kapp said the city’s patrol officers wear helmets and standard gear, and they and members of the traffic unit have responded to incidents related to the labor dispute. The civil disturbance team, she said, was not dispatched Wednesday.
She said patrons at the hotel have registered concerns about large crowds there and that Vancouver police are focusing on proactively maintaining public safety. Kapp said the multiple charges against ILWU members include disorderly conduct, harassment, criminal harassment, malicious mischief and fourth-degree assault. She said there have been verbal threats made to people, including Port of Vancouver employees.
Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, said law enforcement’s response on the picket line “is excessive and designed to intimidate the picketers and trespass on speech rights.”
She added: “The Vancouver police are simply acting in concert with Mitsui,” a reference to the parent owner of United Grain — Mitsui & Co. Ltd., a global trading company headquartered in Tokyo. “It’s truly unfortunate,” Sargent said, “but not unexpected.”
Kapp said the Vancouver Police Department communicates with both the ILWU and United Grain, and bases its actions on the “public safety of people” in Vancouver. The police are “not taking any side,” Kapp said.