United Grain Corp. locked out up to 44 union dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday, saying it did so in response to an investigation showing a union member sabotaged the company’s equipment. The union denied any wrongdoing and accused the company of making up a story to use as a pretext to freeze out workers.
The lockout by United Grain — following months of contentious negotiations between it and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — triggered a fresh round of finger-pointing and prompted union picket lines. It left the port with no longshore workers, which marooned a ship aiming to unload more than 1,800 Subaru vehicles at a port dock and prevented the loading of wheat onto another ship for export.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — a group of grain shippers that includes United Grain — said the company on Tuesday fired the union worker it alleges damaged equipment and then notified the union of the lockout Wednesday morning.
Jennifer Sargent, an ILWU spokeswoman, issued a statement Wednesday saying United Grain and its Japanese owner, Mitsui, have “fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they’ve wanted to do all along, which is to lock workers out instead of reach a fair agreement with them.”
The flap comes after the union and three of four grain Pacific Northwest terminal operators failed to reach an agreement over a new labor contract after the current one expired at the end of September. The next steps, and potential long-term impacts, are unclear. One long-standing concern, raised by Eastern Washington grain growers and others, is to what extent the dispute will slow the shipment of billions of dollars worth of agricultural products to overseas locations.