A gate is a simple tool, flung open or shut depending on the circumstances.
But the Port of Vancouver's main gate, at West 26th Avenue, is an entirely different matter.
Who gets to use it is fraught with potential for significant economic repercussions for Clark County and international trade. That's what Washington state Department of Agriculture inspectors found out last Wednesday when they showed up at the gate, prepared to conduct required grain inspections at United Grain Corp.
The port turned them away, seeking to avoid inflaming the bitter contract dispute between United Grain and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Allowing the inspectors through that gate would open the entry to legally protected picket lines that other unions would not cross. That could mean a shutdown of the port.
Since then, the grain inspectors -- charged with protecting U.S. and international grain trade and consumer interests -- haven't returned. "We haven't been able to get on the port property to do inspections," Hector Castro, communications director for the state Agriculture Department, said Tuesday.
The breakdown in grain inspections is the latest ripple effect in the continuing standoff between local
longshore workers and United Grain, a feud that's part of a larger conflict between grain-terminal operators and union members in the Northwest.
If inspectors can't examine grain, then it's possible that the 3.2 million metric tons of grain -- about 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports -- that moves in an average year through the Port of Vancouver to overseas markets will stop moving.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which includes United Grain, said Tuesday that "so far no grain shipments have been affected." But United Grain is "awaiting word from" the state Department of Agriculture "on how federally required inspections will be provided," McCormick said in an email to The Columbian.
In Portland, where a similar contract dispute is under way at Columbia Grain, McCormick said, grain inspections "are conducted by Federal Grain Inspection Service inspectors, and have continued there without interruption."
Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said in an email to The Columbian that the union is "not a party" to discussions about the grain-inspection issue.
The grain inspectors' blocked attempt to use the port's main gate follows a letter issued last month by Don Hover, director of the state Department of Agriculture. Hover said inspections would stop unless steps were taken to make it safer for inspectors to cross picket lines at a gate to the port's east. That eastside gate, set up by the port to keep the dispute between the ILWU and United Grain isolated and away from its main gate, is where Hover said inspectors have felt threatened by union members. The eastside gate is where the port allows union protests and where it allows people who have business with United Grain to access the company's plant.
Castro said that, with approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state grain inspectors showed up at the port's main gate last Wednesday ready to get their work done. But the port refused to let the inspectors in.
Since then, Castro said, the state Agriculture Department has been talking to the port and United Grain, "trying to see if we can resolve the safety concerns we have."
Reaching a resolution soon is important because "we're in harvest season now, and it's going to be getting pretty busy," Castro said. Once harvest season is under way, Castro added, inspectors conduct their work on a continuous, 24-7 basis.
Theresa Wagner, communications manager for the port, said the port has been consistent and fair in making it clear that neither the union nor those who are directly involved in United Grain's current operations -- including the grain inspectors -- may use the main gate.
Opening the main gate to the grain inspectors would have thrown out the rules and would have allowed the union to set up pickets at the main gate. That, in turn, would have prompted longshore members who aren't employed by United Grain but who operate port facilities under a separate contract to honor the pickets at the gate.
And that would "shut down the entire port," Wagner said, "and we can't do that."
Wagner said the port is hopeful that all the parties involved will reach a resolution. The port is open to adopting better ways of handling the matter, Wagner said, "but the fundamental approach, we believe, is solid."
Negotiations between the ILWU and United Grain started a year ago. On Feb. 27, the company locked out 44 workers at the Port of Vancouver after alleging a union official had sabotaged equipment. The union has denied wrongdoing, and the Clark County prosecuting attorney hasn't yet decided whether to file criminal charges.