A U.S. District Court judge in Portland has ordered the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to stop interfering with the operations of Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge Lines when the union carries out water-based pickets against Columbia Grain in Portland and United Grain in Vancouver.
Judge Ann Aiken issued the order Tuesday. It is a preliminary action until an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board makes a final decision in the case. A hearing is set on Nov. 5.
At issue is whether water-based pickets by the ILWU should be allowed to impact ostensibly neutral companies, such as Tidewater, that move cargo on the region’s waterways for the grain companies.
In her ruling, Aiken disagreed with the union’s argument that Tidewater was legitimately subjected to picketing because the company provides essential transportation services to Columbia Grain. Part of Aiken’s decision centered on Tidewater’s “spud” barges — floating docks anchored in place by steel pipes. Aiken wrote that Columbia Grain doesn’t use those barges for its operations and that the barges “are not in reasonable proximity to (Columbia Grain’s) premises.” As a result, the union’s argument, which relies on the “related work doctrine,” doesn’t apply in this situation, Aiken wrote.
Aiken’s order, which stems from an Aug. 26 complaint filed by Tidewater with the National Labor Relations Board, directs the U.S. Marshals Service to take enforcement action against the longshore union, if necessary.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said there’s been no final ruling on the merits of Tidewater’s complaint. She also blasted the NLRB’s handling of the case. In doing so, she referred to the agency’s interpretation of a federal law that imposes restrictions on certain union activities and to the agency’s involvement in a dispute over the operations of Export Grain Terminal in Longview.
“The union believes that restricting water pickets violates free speech rights, though such infringements are not unexpected given NLRB Region 19’s interpretation of Taft-Hartley” and the NLRB’s “aggressive approach towards the ILWU since the EGT struggle,” Sargent said. “Unfortunately, NLRB Region 19 has become the biggest cheerleader and supporter of foreign companies engaged in the export of American resources and the assault on American workers.”
‘Unfair labor practices’
United Grain and Columbia Grain locked out union dockworkers in February and May, respectively. To boost their competitiveness, the grain handlers say, they want a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the ILWU signed with EGT in Longview. The union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle, are aimed at breaking the union and cutting jobs.
In its Aug. 26 complaint to the NLRB, Tidewater — an operator of tugboats and barges — alleges the longshore union has damaged the company’s business by picketing near the company’s facilities along the Snake and Columbia rivers.
Based on its investigation of Tidewater’s complaint, the NLRB filed on Sept. 20 a petition in U.S. District Court in Portland seeking to prevent the longshore union, and its locals in Vancouver and Portland, from conducting picketing activities that harm Tidewater and other companies.
Susannah Merritt, an attorney with the NLRB, argued the union has “engaged in unfair labor practices,” and that, unless Aiken issued an order banning those practices, the union’s actions “threaten to inflict irreparable harm on Tidewater’s and other neutral carrier companies’ business operations and impede the free flow of commerce.”
In their Oct. 1 response, the union’s Seattle attorneys — Robert Lavitt and Laura Ewan — argued the union is holding lawful pickets on the water and that granting the NLRB’s petition “would trample on the First Amendment rights” of longshore workers.
Lavitt and Ewan also noted that Tidewater tugs — with deckhands represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union — “have opted to honor ILWU picket lines, both upriver and down.” As a result, they argued, “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.
Aiken’s order prohibits the union from “threatening, coercing or restraining” Tidewater or “any other person engaged in commerce” in an attempt to prevent them from doing business with Columbia Grain.
In her ruling, Aiken wrote that “the balance of hardships and the public interest tip in favor” of the NLRB and of Tidewater. If something isn’t done to stop the union’s picketing of Tidewater, Aiken wrote, the company “will continue to suffer significant economic harm from the union’s likely unlawful secondary activity …”
Aiken also wrote that her order does not prevent the union from lawfully picketing Columbia Grain’s facilities or to “otherwise engage in lawful primary picketing.”
In a separate but related matter, Tidewater also has filed a lawsuit against the ILWU, alleging the union has harmed it financially by trying to force it to stop doing business with Columbia Grain and United Grain.
As the legal maneuvering continues, the ILWU and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes Columbia Grain, Louis Dreyfus Commodities and United Grain at the Port of Vancouver — say they’ve agreed to return to the bargaining table in hopes of resolving their quarrel over terms of a new contract. Both parties say they’re set to renew talks on Oct. 21 and 22.