State Sen. Don Benton says Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to not allow Washington State Patrol officers to escort state grain inspectors past picket lines and safely into United Grain Corp.’s Vancouver facility constitutes official misconduct.
“What I would like to see is state employees allowed to do their job, so we don’t destroy a 50-year worldwide reputation as being the most reliable grain exporter in the world,” said Benton, R-Vancouver.
The senator filed a misconduct complaint against Inslee with the Executive Ethics Commission last week.
A labor dispute between United Grain Corp. and International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers has continued for 17 months at the Port of Vancouver.
In June, the governor decided state troopers would no longer protect grain inspectors making their way through the picket lines. After the announcement, the state’s Agriculture Department stopped sending grain inspectors to the facility. The state employees inspect and certify the grain before it is exported.
The governor wrote in a letter at the end of July that it became clear after eight months of police presence that “keeping WSP escorts in place was not leading to productive negotiations, as intended.”
Benton alleges by removing the security escorts, the governor is “effectively forcing a private corporation to shut down until it negotiates with its union.” Benton urged the ethics committee to take “immediate disciplinary action” against Inslee, a Democrat.
Benton said the governor’s decision leaves state workers “defenseless” and “legitimizes the thuggish practices of ILWU at the Vancouver export facility.”
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, shot back at Benton.
“We both know that a union’s only real power is the withholding of their labor,” Moeller wrote Benton in an email, urging him and state lawmakers to “keep our collective noses out of it and let labor and management work it out.”
The governor’s office dismissed Benton’s comment as being without merit and “a groundless grab for headlines.”
On Benton’s legislative website, he is quoted as saying, “The governor has an obligation to stop the violence and protect state employees, even if it means going against a political ally.”
Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for ILWU, said pulling the escorts was the right move.
“The governor made the right decision to stop providing publicly funded escorts to a private Japanese corporation,” she said.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for United Grain, said while the company doesn’t agree there is a safety concern, United Grain was willing to pay for the escorts. “We believe if there are security concerns and they want to address them, they have the ability to do that and charge us with any costs associated with that,” McCormick said.
In a separate letter, Benton requested Clark County commissioners to urge the sheriff to provide security for the grain inspectors. County commissioners don’t oversee the sheriff, who also is an elected official, but do have the ability to set the sheriff’s office budget.
“While I firmly believe that government should not take sides in negotiations between businesses and unions, I also believe that government has a clear obligation to protect its citizens (including state employees) from the threat of bodily harm,” Benton wrote to commissioners, noting federal law requires grain be inspected before it’s exported.
Sheriff Garry Lucas declined an offer by United Grain Corp., which said it would pay for security. In a letter, Lucas, a Republican, said it’s up to law enforcement to stay neutral and preserve peace. “It becomes difficult to maintain neutrality when a police agency is a contractor/employee of one of the parties,” Lucas wrote.
Bargaining between the two groups, with assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, is scheduled to continue Aug. 10 and 11.
The ethics board will review the allegations Benton made against Inslee to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the issue and is expected to respond within the next couple of days.