Dockworkers union, grain group set talks

Port of Vancouver says it will pay for local mediator

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A softening of the standoff between union dockworkers and grain terminal owners in Vancouver and Portland emerged Tuesday as the parties confirmed they'll return to the bargaining table in hopes of settling the dispute over workplace hiring and other rules. Meanwhile, the Port of Vancouver said it's willing to hire a local mediator and pay that person's costs to help the parties resolve their quarrel.

Officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association both said they'll renew contract negotiations during meetings to be held soon. Speaking during a public hearing of the Port of Vancouver commissioners Tuesday, Cager Clabaugh, president of the ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, said talks are set to reopen Oct. 21 and 22.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver — said renewed negotiations will occur in late October and in November. He said the parties agreed to the additional meetings after an Oct. 3 discussion.

If a federal mediator isn't available, the port is ready to supply such an expert from the local area, said Todd Coleman, executive director for the Port of Vancouver. The port wants to see the discord resolved and is willing to cover the costs of a local mediator, said Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager.

The new round of discussions is the first since the ILWU and grain handlers met in late March in Vancouver. Those talks quickly broke off. It's also the latest development in the yearlong contract dispute between Northwest grain handlers and Longshore workers. United Grain and Columbia Grain in Portland locked out union dockworkers in February and May, respectively.

'Workers' rights'

Clabaugh told commissioners Tuesday that a well-capitalized Mitsui & Co. — the Tokyo-based parent of United Grain — brought in a "paramilitary strike-breaking firm" before negotiations even began and that the corporation is "willing to spend as much as possible to break down workers' rights." He said "Mitsui is in no hurry" to reach a fair agreement.

In an emailed statement to The Columbian, McCormick said "Mitsui USA is not involved in the day-to-day management of UGC or UGC's negotiations with the ILWU." He said United Grain and the companies with which it's coordinating negotiations — Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — are seeking fair terms similar to those the ILWU approved last year in its contract with the EGT terminal in Longview.

The fallout from the lockout includes ongoing pickets by the ILWU, the use of replacement workers at United Grain, Vancouver police responses to reported incidents, and charges and countercharges filed by both sides with the National Labor Relations Board.

The conflict briefly prompted state grain inspectors, worried about their security, to balk at conducting their work at United Grain. It's also led the U.S. Coast Guard to establish rules of engagement on the Columbia River.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee is among many government officials who've called on the parties to re-establish negotiations. And Eastern Washington grain growers have expressed worry the dispute will worsen to the point of threatening their ability to move agricultural products to overseas markets.

About 3.2 million metric tons of grain — roughly 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports — moves in an average year through the Port of Vancouver to overseas markets.

'Level the playing field'

Now, more than seven months after United Grain locked out Longshore workers, the parties are heading back to the bargaining table.

Initially, another grain terminal operator, Temco, negotiated with the ILWU as a member of the Grain Handlers Association. But Temco, a U.S.-based operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama, decided to negotiate directly with union dockworkers.

Temco — a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and CHS Inc. — subsequently signed a temporary contract with the ILWU. United Grain officials have said that temporary contract includes a contingency clause allowing it to be changed to include beneficial changes the union may accept in a contract with the remaining members of the Grain Handlers Association.

In an email to The Columbian Tuesday, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, confirmed the October dates and said "we've agreed with the employer" that both sides won't make additional comments about the negotiations.

Clabaugh, the ILWU's president in Vancouver, told port commissioners Tuesday morning that Mitsui is attempting to "break our union" and that the dispute boils down to "job protection — our ability to retain our local jobs."

Money "is not an issue" for Mitsui, he said, which benefits from local taxpayer investments in port facilities while it freezes out local workers. Clabaugh added, "This has not been a fair fight."

McCormick said the companies "have made clear since bargaining began" that they want contract terms "paralleling those ILWU approved" in a contract with EGT in Longview.

"Signing a similar agreement with (United Grain) and the other companies will level the playing field and allow us to better compete with EGT which has gained significant market share at the Port of Vancouver's expense since signing its contract with ILWU," McCormick said.