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United Grain files suit against union official

Company alleges Vancouver resident sabotaged equipment

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

United Grain Corp., locked in a contract dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at the Port of Vancouver, has filed a lawsuit against the union official it alleges sabotaged the company’s equipment, accusing him of causing more than $300,000 in damages to the company.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 28 in Clark County Superior Court, alleges that Todd Walker, a Vancouver resident, trespassed on United Grain’s property and interfered with the company’s business. The lawsuit asks the court to award the company damages and attorney fees. The lawsuit says that during the company’s negotiations with the union, Walker, a member of the ILWU’s Local 4 in Vancouver, served on the union’s bargaining team and as an elected member of the local union’s labor relations committee.

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, issued a statement condemning United Grain’s lawsuit. The company is “publicizing unproven accusations against a single worker in order to cover for its own illegal lockout of an entire work force. We’re confident that Mr. Walker will aggressively defend himself and that the charges will be found to be groundless.”

Attempts to reach Walker Monday were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit by United Grain adds yet another twist to its ongoing lockout of up to 44 union dockworkers after it alleged Walker committed acts of sabotage. The company says it fired him. The Vancouver Police Department’s independent investigation of the company’s charges continues, said police spokeswoman Kim Kapp. No arrests have been made.

Meanwhile, pickets maintained a presence outside the United Grain export terminal at the Port of Vancouver, the sixth day of a lockout in a bitter dispute between the company and the ILWU over the terms of a new labor contract.

Suit alleges damage

United Grain’s lawsuit says that on Dec. 22, Walker was dispatched to work at United Grain’s terminal as a switchman, operating railroad switches to allow grain cars to be moved to and from the unloading area.

On that same day, the lawsuit alleges, Walker attempted to damage the company’s drag chain conveyer and halt production by “throwing a pipe into the drag chain conveyer.” Then Walker “intentionally damaged United Grain’s progressor gear box by pouring sand into it,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit says Walker had “no legitimate reason to work on or be near” either of those pieces of equipment on Dec. 22. The company alleges Walker’s actions caused a shutdown of operations and inflicted extensive damage, requiring United Grain “to incur costly repairs and replacement costs, as well as investigation and security expenses.”

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In her response to the lawsuit Monday, Sargent, referring to United Grain’s Japanese ownership, said “Mitsui needs to end its illegal lockout and reach an agreement with the local workers who support our economy.”

Indeed, the ILWU has asked United Grain and other terminal operators to return to the bargaining table in light of a separate agreement the union struck with U.S.-based operator Temco.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents United Grain and others, said Monday the group hasn’t seen the union’s contract with Temco but wants to review it before deciding whether to relaunch negotiations.

Meanwhile, operations at the Port of Vancouver continued uninterrupted, as United Grain maintained operations with non-union employees and as some union dockworkers, under a separate contract with the Pacific Maritime Association, worked on other port operations.

“Things seem to be working smoothly,” said Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager. To keep the dispute isolated to the United Grain terminal — where some union members worked under a disputed contract with the company before United Grain locked them out — the port set aside a gate on its east side for pickets and for the company to have access to its site.

The port’s decision also means that dockworkers who have a separate contract with the Pacific Maritime Association may enter the port to do their jobs without crossing picket lines. While the lockout affects only the United Grain terminal, two other Northwest terminal operators are entangled in a disagreement with the union. Those are Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities. Union members continue to work at those sites under a contract that they had rejected in a membership vote.

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

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

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter