Judge set to rule on Tidewater complaint against union

It alleges that ILWU picketing of grain firms has hurt business

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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A judge in Portland is expected to decide as early as today whether to bar the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from interfering with the operations of Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge Lines when the union carries out pickets against Columbia Grain in Portland and United Grain in Vancouver.

At issue is whether water-based pickets by the union, held as part of its yearlong contract dispute with Northwest grain handlers, should be allowed to impact ostensibly neutral companies that are moving cargo on the region's waterways for the grain companies.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken heard arguments Thursday, including from attorneys representing Tidewater and the ILWU, and from an official with the National Labor Relations Board. The hearing was in response to an Aug. 26 complaint filed by Tidewater with the NLRB. It alleges the union has damaged its business by picketing near the company's facilities at sites along the Snake and Columbia rivers. The NLRB, which investigated Tidewater's complaint, is asking Judge Aiken to prohibit the ILWU from conducting pickets that interfere with operations by Tidewater and other transportation companies.

In defending its water-based pickets, the union is urging Aiken to deny the NLRB's request, according to court documents. Attorneys for the union argue there's no basis for it and that it would infringe on the longshore union's free speech rights.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related matter, Tidewater, an operator of tugboats and barges, has filed a lawsuit against the ILWU and its local units in Portland and Vancouver. The suit, filed on Oct. 2 in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleges the union, in its pickets against Columbia Grain and United Grain, has "coerced or restrained" Tidewater, the company's employees and others in attempts to further its dispute against the grain companies. United Grain and

Columbia Grain locked out longshore workers in February and May, respectively.

"Should the picketing continue, Tidewater's damages will be irreparable," according to the company's lawsuit, filed by attorneys Thomas Triplett and Michael Garone of the Portland law firm of Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt. Tidewater is seeking unspecified damages, to be proven at trial.

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said Thursday the union will respond to the lawsuit. She said the union's priority remains to reach a fair agreement with the grain companies and to get "dozens of union workers back to work."

Illegal picketing alleged

The legal maneuverings are the latest development in the yearlong contract dispute between Northwest grain handlers and longshore workers. To boost their competitiveness, the grain handlers say, they want a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the ILWU signed with grain terminal operator EGT in Longview. The union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities are driven by a workplace power grab aimed at breaking the union and gutting local jobs.

On Sept. 20, the NLRB filed a petition in U.S. District Court in Portland seeking to prevent the longshore union, and its local units in Vancouver and Portland, from conducting picketing activities that harm Tidewater and other companies.

"This illegal picketing is having an adverse financial effect on Tidewater and other neutral carrier companies," according to Anne Pomerantz, acting regional director for the NLRB. Pomerantz says that, based on "a review of the field investigation," the NLRB decided "there is reasonable cause to believe" Tidewater's complaint is valid and that the union has engaged in unfair labor practices.

While an administrative law judge with the NLRB will hear arguments over Tidewater's complaint on Nov. 5, Pomerantz says, "the need for interim injunctive relief exists."

In their Oct. 1 response to Pomerantz, the union's attorneys -- Robert Lavitt and Laura Ewan, with the Seattle law firm of Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin and Lavitt -- argue the union is holding lawful pickets on the water and that granting Pomerantz's request "would trample on the First Amendment rights" of longshore workers.

Lavitt and Ewan also argue that Tidewater was legitimately subjected to picketing because the company "furnished delivery services essential" to the primary operations of Columbia Grain. They also say Tidewater tugs -- with deckhands represented by the Inlandboatmen's Union -- "have opted to honor ILWU picket lines, both upriver and down." As a result, the union's attorneys argue, "Tidewater has filed a grievance alleging that its employees' decisions to honor picket lines are a violation" of the labor agreement it has with the Inlandboatmen's Union.

Although Thursday's court arguments and the related lawsuit are the latest flare-ups in a larger contract dispute, the ILWU and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association have agreed to return to the bargaining table in hopes of resolving their quarrel. The union and the Grain Handlers Association -- whose membership includes United Grain at the Port of Vancouver -- are expected to renew talks later this month.