Tentative agreement reached in N.W. grain terminal dispute

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

Updated: August 12, 2014, 7:15 PM

 

A bitter two-year labor dispute that engulfed everyone from Vancouver police and Washington’s governor to state and federal agriculture officials may have ended, as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Northwest grain terminal operators have reached a tentative contract agreement.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced the unsettled accord Tuesday, saying it was reached just before midnight Monday in talks between the Longshore union and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. In Vancouver, the announcement means normal export operations at United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver may proceed. United Grain, the West Coast’s largest grain elevator, has been all but shut down since July 7, when the state Department of Agriculture stopped providing grain inspections in response to threats from pickets.

Gov. Jay Inslee praised the tentative settlement, saying it allows grain inspectors to immediately resume their work at United Grain. Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said United Grain’s operations will be fully up and running “as soon as the inspectors are available.”

McCormick said he expects union pickets — which the Longshore union has maintained since February 2013, when United Grain locked out Longshore workers at its facility — will continue until the union ratifies the tentative agreement. Until then, he said, United Grain will continue to use non-union employees and temporary contract workers to run its operations.

In an email to The Columbian Tuesday, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the Longshore union, said each of the union’s local units will “review the tentative agreement and vote according to their internal rules, with results to be announced Aug. 25.” Terms of the agreement won’t be made public, she said, until union members review and vote on the tentative settlement. Sargent added, “Reduced picket lines will remain” at United Grain and at Columbia Grain in Portland (where Longshore workers were locked out in May 2013) “while members vote on the agreement.”

The agreement also would apply to Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle. If finalized, it should ensure that U.S. grain exports will proceed without disruption as harvest approaches.

Theresa Wagner, spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said the port was pleased that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement. “As they work to reach a final agreement, we’ll continue adhering to the same priorities we’ve had since the dispute began: safety for those who need to enter/exit the port, protection of property and keeping the port open for business,” Wagner said in an email.

The conflict wasn’t about wages and benefits. Instead, it was about workplace rules and hiring policies. It was a battle over which side — grain terminal operators or union dockworkers — would get the upper hand over control of labor issues on the region’s waterfronts.

Terminal operators had argued for a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the Longshore union signed in February 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. The union contended the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities would hurt workers.

Early contract offers from the grain handlers would have taken away some perks and grievance procedures. Other concessions include letting employers go to court to end work stoppages immediately and allowing supervisors to perform work during health-and-safety disputes.

It’s unclear what either side gave up or gained in the negotiations that eventually led to the tentative agreement. What is clear is that the tentative accord not only relaxes concerns about the movement of U.S. grain to overseas markets but also allows both parties to bail out of complaints they’d leveled at one another before the National Labor Relations Board.

“Obviously both sides made concessions to reach an agreement,” McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, said in an email to The Columbian. “Neither side will discuss the specifics of those concessions while final approval of the contract is pending. We expect all parties will work together to ensure reliable shipment of U.S. grain to markets around the world, as the grain handler companies and (the Longshore union) have for decades.”

Added McCormick: “The parties will mutually release one another from complaints” pending before the National Labor Relations Board.

‘Flow of grain’

In his statement praising the tentative settlement, Inslee thanked both parties “for coming back to the table in time to ensure export shipments will allow our growers to ship their world-class grain products in time for peak harvest.” In a statement issued to The Columbian on Tuesday, state Agriculture Director Bud Hover said, in part, that “with this change in the situation, inspectors from our Grain Inspection Program are prepared to report today to the (Port of Vancouver), resuming the inspections that allow the flow of grain to resume particularly at this critical time when our state’s farmers are in the middle of grain harvest.”

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine grain terminals on the Columbia River and Puget Sound. The contract dispute initially involved six of those terminals that operate under a single collective bargaining agreement with the Longshore union: United Grain, Columbia Grain, Louis Dreyfus Commodities and Temco, which has grain elevators in Portland and Tacoma.

Temco broke away from the alliance in early December 2012 and negotiated separately with the union.

In Vancouver, United Grain and the Longshore union’s Local 4 launched negotiations in August 2012 over a new collective bargaining agreement. About two months later, the company presented what it said was its last, best and final contract offer. A volatile situation ensued: United Grain said it would enforce the contract it wanted, while the union, which had rejected it, said it would go back to work anyway.

On Feb. 27, 2013, the grain terminal operator froze out Longshore members. It based its action on its private investigator’s conclusion that union worker Todd Walker had purposely damaged the company’s machinery.

United Grain claimed that video surveillance footage showed that Walker poured sand into the gearbox of a grain-loading machine in December 2012, temporarily halting grain operations at the Port of Vancouver.

The Longshore union denied any wrongdoing.

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office later declined to file charges against Walker, saying it was impossible to identify the person captured on the video or to be certain “that the person in the video is actually damaging the machine.”

United Grain filed a civil lawsuit against Walker in Clark County Superior Court. The company alleges Walker violated various property, trespass and other laws. It accuses him of causing more than $300,000 in property damage.

Walker has sought to have the civil suit dismissed.

McCormick, the spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, declined to comment Tuesday about whether United Grain would drop its civil suit against Walker.

The tentative agreement comes not long after both state and federal grain inspectors, citing safety concerns, refused to enter a picketed gate to reach United Grain’s facility.


The Associated Press contributed to this story