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News / Clark County News

Lockout’s ripple effects felt

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: February 28, 2013, 4:00pm

A sense of anticipation and dread settled over the standoff between United Grain Corp. and union dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver on Thursday, with the company’s managers taking on cargo-handling duties as locked-out union members expected replacement workers to be brought in soon from out of state.

The ripple effects of the tense situation — touched off after United Grain accused a local union member of sabotaging its equipment, fired the person and then froze out up to 44 dockworkers — were many. They included plans by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to lodge a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; an investigation launched by Vancouver police into United Grain’s allegations of sabotage against the union worker; and a move by the port to keep picketers and property safe.

The fallout comes after the union and three of four Pacific Northwest terminal grain operators failed to reach an agreement over a new labor contract after the current one expired at the end of September.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said Thursday the governor is closely monitoring the situation and plans to reach out to the parties soon.

While such labor disputes aren’t unusual on the West Coast, the last one to roil the region’s ports occurred in 2002, according to Larry Paulson, the former longtime executive director of the Port of Vancouver. “Huge financial losses,” Paulson said of the controversy 11 years ago in a phone interview Thursday. “Hard on everyone.”

Paulson said the 2002 dispute involved a two-week lockout that left ports from San Diego to Seattle without workers to conduct most, if not all, port activities. By contrast, the current conflict concerns only operations at United Grain’s terminal. Except for a few delays early on when dockworkers walked off their jobs Wednesday, most other operations at the Port of Vancouver have returned to normal. In the 2002 case, Paulson said, the Bush administration stepped in and the parties eventually resolved their differences.

Port calls for safety

On Thursday, the ILWU continued its pickets at the port. Several union members protested outside United Grain’s offices in downtown Vancouver, too.

Within the next few days, the union will file with the National Labor Relations Board an unfair labor practice charge against United Grain, according to Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the ILWU. Sargent said details of the charge are still being worked out.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — a group of grain shippers that includes United Grain — said the company acted within its rights when it held an employee accountable for sabotage and locked out workers. The union denies any wrongdoing.

Vancouver police are investigating the sabotage allegations, police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said Thursday. United Grain had ordered its own investigation by a former FBI investigator. As to the union’s plan to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, McCormick said “we’re more than happy” to have the NLRB investigate the matter. In the meantime, he said, United Grain is using managers and non-union employees to conduct work at its terminal.

The Port of Vancouver, meanwhile, is telling United Grain and the ILWU to keep things safe as the pickets continue and as speculation suggests replacement workers may arrive soon. Gettier, a Wilmington, Del., company whose services include protection of replacement workers and videotaping picket line activities, has visited United Grain and other sites.

In a Wednesday letter, obtained by the Columbian, Port of Vancouver Executive Director Todd Coleman outlined the port’s expectations of United Grain and the ILWU, saying the port “will only allow picketing or protests on port property in the designated area near Gate 2,” which is in the vicinity of Port Way and Harborside Drive on the port’s east side. The letter also says United Grain security “is not allowed outside (the company’s) leasehold and associated rail lines.” It warns that the port will contact the police if either the ILWU or the company fail to follow the port’s guidelines.

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The port’s letter also states it expects that all parties “will refrain from interfering with vessels berthed at port facilities.”

Costs, legal issues

Three grain terminal operators — United Grain in Vancouver, Columbia Grain in Portland and Louis Dreyfus Commodities, which operates Portland and Seattle facilities — are at odds with the union.

The operators want employer-friendly concessions in a new contract with the union that they say is fair and generous. The union says the contract requires too many concessions. As the contentious situation plays out, it will follow certain ground rules, according to Elizabeth Ford, a University of Washington labor law expert who lectures on the subject.

Full disclosure: Ford does some work for Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin and Lavitt, LLP — a Seattle law firm that represents the ILWU — but she’s not doing any work related to the union’s dispute with United Grain.

In a labor dispute, Ford said, any complaints filed by either the union or employer would be reviewed and decided by the National Labor Relations Board.

Under certain circumstances, the NLRB may order parties to return to the bargaining table, Ford said, but the board has no power to force the parties to reach an agreement. And there’s nothing stopping the employer and workers from relaunching negotiations, potentially with help from a federal mediator, amid a lockout, she said.

Whether or not an employer is allowed to make its replacement workers permanent depends on the circumstances, Ford said. In the eyes of federal law, she said, when an employer chooses to lock out workers, it’s not necessarily free to also install permanent replacement workers. That would give too much leverage to the employer, Ford said.

Conversely, she added, there are circumstances under which employers may bring in permanent replacement workers, including when a union goes on strike to enforce its economic demands.

Ford said there’s another thing that may force an employer and workers to eventually resolve a dispute: the increasing costs incurred by both parties the longer their relationship remains fractured.

“That would be one thing that would motivate one party or the other” to return to the bargaining table, she said.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter