The removal of protection for grain inspectors at the Port of Vancouver is the culmination of a well-intentioned idea gone wrong for Gov. Jay Inslee.
In February 2013, United Grain Corp. locked out the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from its Vancouver facility as part of a contract dispute. That resulted in picketing activity by union members at the site’s entrance, while the use of company managers and non-union employees allowed for operations to continue at the terminal.
According to law, grain must be inspected by state officials before being exported. And because inspectors were concerned for their safety in the wake of what they felt was intimidation from ILWU members, Inslee for the past nine months has directed state troopers to escort grain inspectors across picket lines. That was the governor’s initial error, however well-meaning. Inslee said the presence of troopers was designed to be temporary, but, as spokeswoman Jaime Smith told The Columbian last week, “Under state law, the Washington State Patrol lacks authority to contract police services to private entities.” United Grain has an obligation to provide safe access for inspectors, and the governor should have left the company to contract with private security companies.
This month, after little movement in the situation, Inslee compounded his error. He stopped having troopers provide protection — effectively halting operations as inspectors declined to enter the facility. Hector Castro, public information officer for the Washington Department of Agriculture, told Portland radio host Lars Larson: “There definitely were security concerns. I think it would be fair to say there still was some harassment going on. As a result, our inspectors, we didn’t think we could ask them to continue to cross the picket lines.”
Inslee’s decision to remove the escorts was calculated to bring the situation to a head. Smith said, “It became increasingly clear that keeping WSP escorts in place was not resulting in productive negotiations as intended.” Yet the decision transfers all power in the dispute to the union at the expense of the other parties:
o United Grain now is unable to move its product;
o The inspectors, who are state employees, are placed in a situation they feel is overly risky and therefore are unable to do their jobs;
o And the Port of Vancouver — and the public — loses out on the commerce, revenue and taxes provided by grain shipments. Also lost is ancillary employment ranging from grain production to transport to other jobs at the port.
Inslee, who was elected in part because of strong support from a variety of unions, has turned a tenuous situation into an unworkable one for the benefit of the ILWU. And in the process he has allowed intimidation tactics to give the union the upper hand.
This not only is harmful to the situation at the Port of Vancouver, but it sends a dangerous message to other unions and other companies throughout the state. Allowing thuggish behavior to triumph in labor disputes only invites future trouble and simply enables unions to view threats as an appropriate tactic. If harassment is allowed to alter the discussion between United Grain and the ILWU — and questions arise as to why state troopers did not address any harassing behavior — it will embolden other unions to embrace similar strategies.
Recognizing the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, Inslee did what he thought was best to facilitate an end to the labor dispute. In reality, he only exacerbated the situation.