Union, United Grain deny agency's allegations

NLRB says both sides in dispute have engaged in unfair labor practices

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

In their long-running contract dispute, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver agree on at least one thing: The National Labor Relations Board's allegations that both sides have engaged in unfair labor practices are off base.

In written responses to the NLRB, attorneys for the ILWU and United Grain deny accusations lodged against the two parties in separate consolidated complaints filed by the federal agency in February. The NLRB issued the complaints after it investigated unfair labor practice charges filed by the union and the company against each other in a battle that intensified in February 2013, when United Grain locked out as many as 44 union dockworkers.

Meanwhile, United Grain and the Longshore union confirmed Wednesday they remain at the bargaining table in hopes of resolving a dispute that's part of a larger conflict between Northwest grain terminal operators and union dockworkers. Also on Wednesday, the company filed another unfair labor practice charge against the Longshore union's Vancouver Local 4.

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said negotiations continue. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain — said "negotiations are scheduled and we expect those negotiations to occur in the presence of a federal mediator."

As the negotiations move forward, an administrative law judge is expected to begin hearing the NLRB's complaints against the company and the union on Sept. 9. No rulings have been made.

Two essential arguments frame what amounts to a larger Northwest quarrel: To boost their competitiveness, the grain handlers want a new labor contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the ILWU signed in February 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. Similar terms are in place at Kalama Export Company's terminal at the Port of Kalama.

The union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain in Portland (where dockworkers have been locked out since May 2013) and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle — aim to break the union. The union says it was able to reach a fair, temporary agreement with Temco, which operates grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama.

Complaints spur responses

In the NLRB's complaint against the ILWU, Ron Hooks, a Seattle-based regional director for the federal agency, alleges multiple incidents took place in March, April and May 2013. One allegation is that the Longshore union physically assaulted people, made racial slurs and verbal threats, and blocked or "recklessly" pursued vehicles.

In a March 28 written response, Robert Lavitt, a Seattle attorney for the union, denies the allegations, arguing in part that "some or all" of the union's actions were protected by the U.S. and state constitutions, "which both safeguard the right to free speech, including picketing, and to peaceably assemble."

Lavitt also says that "some of the conduct" outlined in Hooks' complaint "has been the subject of criminal prosecution, therefore prosecution by the (NLRB) would not further the purposes" of the National Labor Relations Act.

Hooks' complaint against United Grain alleges the company's decision to lock out as many as 44 union dockworkers on Feb. 27, 2013, violated the National Labor Relations Act, in part, because the action was intended to "discourage employees" from engaging in protected union activities. Before it locked out workers, Hooks alleges, United Grain also illegally fired nine ILWU workers, five of whom had raised safety issues with managers.

In United Grain's written response, also filed on March 28, Richard Alli, a Portland attorney for the company, denies any wrongdoing. Before the company froze out union dockworkers, Alli argues, workers dispatched by the ILWU to work at United Grain's facility "deliberately engaged in a sustained pattern and practice of unprotected, and ultimately dangerous, conduct aimed at frustrating" the company's "business purpose."

Alli also says the company did not violate the law "by discharging union members who engaged in conduct that provided valid, independent reasons for their discharges."

Additional charge filed

McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said the ILWU has continued to engage in the type of misconduct that prompted United Grain to file the unfair labor practice charges that will be heard in September.

The company's new unfair labor practice charge filed Wednesday against the ILWU alleges that, within the past six months, members of ILWU's Local 4 in Vancouver have threatened to cause "bodily harm" to United Grain managers, employees, vendors and service providers.

Those threats have included throwing rocks at them, and confronting a company manager by displaying a Bowie-type knife and "making a threatening cutting motion across his own neck in view of the manager."

Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, said Wed-nesday she could not comment on the company's additional unfair labor practice charge because she had not reviewed it. However, Sargent said, United Grain has previously made allegations that authorities have declined to pursue. She cited the case of Todd Walker, a union dockworker, whom United Grain accused of sabotaging its operations when it locked out union members at its facility. The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office decided not to charge Walker based on a lack of evidence. United Grain is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Walker in Clark County Superior Court.