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United Grain, union trade charges

Company acknowledges that replacement workers are being used

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: May 2, 2013, 5:00pm

As union dockworkers and United Grain Corp. square off at the Port of Vancouver, both parties also are lobbing unfair labor practice charges at each other to the National Labor Relations Board.

A total of six charges were filed in March and April, including two last week. Four of the charges were filed against United Grain by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Two of them were filed by the company against the ILWU.

Documents, obtained by The Columbian, show both parties making a range of accusations, including unlawful firings and intimidation. In one charge, the union alleges the company “unilaterally” and unlawfully fired five members of the ILWU’s Vancouver Local 4 bargaining unit in early January after they refused to operate a locomotive because they were concerned about the safety of its brakes.

In a charge lodged by United Grain, the company alleges, in part, that ILWU members have “on several occasions visited employees of United Grain at their personal residences and have threatened and intimidated them.”

Meanwhile, Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents United Grain and other grain exporters in the nine-week-old standoff with the ILWU, acknowledged Thursday that the company is using replacement workers. United Grain recently increased its use of replacement workers “alongside its own management and office employees to maintain full operation” at its grain-export facility at the Port of Vancouver, McCormick said in an email to The Columbian. The company “cannot disclose or discuss these replacement employees in any detail. The safety and security of the employees is paramount.”

The ILWU and United Grain are at odds over the terms of a new labor contract as part of a larger conflict between grain-terminal operators and union dockworkers in the Pacific Northwest. The simmering dispute erupted on Feb. 27, when United Grain locked out 44 dockworkers at the port after it alleged a union official sabotaged equipment.

The company said it fired the union official. It also sued the worker for property damages. The union has denied any wrongdoing, and the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney is weighing whether to file criminal charges. The alleged sabotage is among 27 police reports generated in response to incidents, according to Vancouver police.

United Grain and other terminal operators have said they need more flexibility in workplace rules to compete on a level playing field with other grain exporters. They say their contract offer meets standards elsewhere and includes a generous compensation package for union members.

The union counters that the companies’ proposed contract guts the union’s ability to represent workers on a variety of workplace matters. The ILWU says a temporary contract it signed with another grain terminal operator — Temco — includes concessions but maintains fair workplace policies.

Deadlock intensifies

The unfair labor practices charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board further intensify the deadlock between the two parties. The NLRB acts, in part, to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices committed by private-sector employers and unions.

According to the four charges filed by the ILWU on March 4, 18 and 21 and on April 24, the union alleges:

• United Grain “took the extreme measure” of freezing out all 44 union dockworkers, “even though by its own statements it had identified and terminated the employee” who allegedly sabotaged equipment.

• With “no just cause,” United Grain “unlawfully and unilaterally” fired Local 4 bargaining unit members Neal Fuller, Larry Andrew, Jason Stockwell and Kyle Lehto, “allegedly for sweeping the wrong area.” The four sweepers did their jobs under the direction of their supervisor, “who failed to ever advise that they were sweeping the wrong area.”

• United Grain unilaterally and unlawfully fired Local 4 bargaining unit members Monte Sinclair, Tommy Boyer, Josh Bielas, Kerry Eells and Timothy Hayden after they refused to operate a locomotive because of safety concerns they had regarding “the deficiency and functionality” of the locomotive’s brakes.

• The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association “unlawfully insisted to impasse on a change in the scope of the bargaining unit …”

According to the two charges filed by United Grain, on March 13 and April 24, the company alleges:

• Union members and its “agents and authorized representatives have routinely and intentionally blocked” the entrance and exit to the company’s grain-export terminal by “standing directly in front of and around the sides of vehicles” for periods of up to two hours and “shining lights in the eyes of drivers at night seeking to injure and blind them.”

• Union members have on several occasions threatened and intimidated United Grain employees at their homes; routinely blocked the entrance and exit of United Grain security guards and employees who are trying to leave a hotel parking lot to go to work at the company’s facility; and “physically assaulted” several of the company’s security guards who were trying to help an employee leave the hotel parking lot.

Ron Hooks, the NLRB’s regional director in Seattle, said Thursday some of the charges, because they were filed two months ago, may be decided by the end of this month.

In any case, the NLRB investigates unfair labor practice charges to determine whether they have merit. If they do have merit — but the NLRB can’t get the parties to agree on a settlement — then the agency will issue complaints.

Complaints trigger hearings by an administrative law judge. Appeals of a judge’s decision are part of the process, too.

Hooks said remedies of disputes may include ordering a company to reinstate a worker’s employment with back pay or upholding a company’s decision to fire a worker.

McCormick, the spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, said in March that United Grain had not brought in replacement workers but hadn’t ruled it out.

In his statement to The Columbian on Thursday, McCormick said that since the Feb. 27 lockout, United Grain has operated its terminal “primarily with (company) management and non-represented employees.”

During the first few weeks, McCormick said, United Grain’s regular employees “successfully managed nearly all the jobs formerly handled by ILWU personnel, though temporary drivers for the terminal’s sole locomotive were employed.”

McCormick said recently, however, “the company’s need for some of its employees to return to their regular duties has required (United Grain) to employ an increased number of temporary workers for certain tasks, such as performing cleanup and sweeping tasks that some ILWU members refused to perform despite being dispatched to do so.”

McCormick said the company has “completed training of temporary workers and is now using them alongside its own management and office employees to maintain full operation.”

United Grain “cannot disclose or discuss these replacement employees in any detail,” McCormick said, given the union’s “repeated acts of illegal behavior” aimed at intimidating and threatening “managers, staff members and temporary employees …”

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The company wants to reach a fair agreement with the union, McCormick said, “one that will allow Local 4 workers to return to their jobs helping the company operate its terminal.”

In a statement to The Columbian Thursday, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said United Grain “attorneys and public relations contractors are making accusations about local workers to distract the public from what’s really at stake in this fight.

She went on: “The bottom line is that Japan-based Mitsui” — a reference to the parent owner of United Grain, Mitsui & Co. Ltd., a global trading company headquartered in Tokyo — “is profiting from America’s public ports and labor, and trying to squeeze concessions from workers at a time when our community needs more good jobs.”

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

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter