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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Union dockworkers locked out, looking for work

United Grain's yearlong lockout has big impact on livelihoods

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
4 Photos
ILWU member Marcel DeBord walks in a crosswalk in front of a van entering the United Grain facility on Feb.
ILWU member Marcel DeBord walks in a crosswalk in front of a van entering the United Grain facility on Feb. 19 at the Port of Vancouver. Photo Gallery

Two years ago, Marcel DeBord, 61, earned the right to call himself a regular “B man,” a promotion and prideful place in the world of union dockworkers.

In a nine-month period in 2012, he logged 1,726 hours at United Grain Corp.’s terminal at the Port of Vancouver, driving forklifts and trucks, as well as operating locomotives hauling grain-filled rail cars.

For all of 2013, however, his hours plunged 33 percent to 1,156 hours.

The slashing of his employment — and the resulting impacts on his family’s livelihood — began a year ago today, when United Grain locked out up to 44 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The company’s action — which it based on its private investigator’s conclusion that a Longshore member had sabotaged the company’s machinery — occurred about six months into fruitless negotiations between United Grain and the ILWU over a new collective bargaining agreement.

A year after the lockout, its ripple effects persist. Court battles unfold in local and national legal settings. Regional and state political and business leaders repeatedly call for a resolution to what amounts to a larger conflict involving several grain terminal operators in the Northwest. Although agricultural products keep flowing to overseas markets, the contract quarrel briefly threatened to halt the state inspections at United Grain that are required to keep cargo moving. An estimated 3.2 million metric tons of grain moves in an average year through the Port of Vancouver.

And an incident early Wednesday morning, on the eve of the lockout’s anniversary, underscored the intensely local nature of this bitter dispute. A larger number of picketers than usual gathered at a gate on the port’s east side, where United Grain moves non-union replacement workers to and from its facility.

Kim Kapp, a Vancouver Police spokeswoman, said the big gathering, coupled with cars that had been left abandoned, blocked the nearby roadway and the entrance to United Grain’s terminal, which is off Thompson Road near Mill Plain Boulevard.

Kapp said police cleared up the situation, which lasted for roughly 30 minutes. No one was injured. One person who had abandoned a car and joined picketers was cited for disorderly conduct, Kapp said.

And while the ILWU and United Grain say they’re continuing to talk, dockworkers like DeBord are still hurting as they observe other people — some brought in out of state — take the jobs that once belonged to them.

DeBord scrambles for work every day — sometimes traveling to other ports in the region only to find there’s nothing available, sometimes arriving at the Local 4 dispatch hall in Vancouver only to come up empty.

“I’m in the hall day and night,” he said, “seeing if I can get work.”

Employment curtailed

United Grain said it locked out workers based on its assertion that union member Todd Walker had damaged a grain-loading machine. The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office ultimately declined to file charges against Walker. Prosecutors said it was impossible to identify the person captured by video or to be certain “that the person in the video is actually damaging the machine.”

Still, the company pursues a civil lawsuit against Walker, seeking more than $300,000 in damages. Walker, through a Portland attorney, has called the company’s suit frivolous.

Meanwhile, other locked-out union workers face a different kind of pressure: a steep decline in employment.

There are 193 registered Longshore workers in Vancouver, encompassing Class A and Class B workers. It can take 15 years or more to achieve Class A status. It means you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt, as well as seniority. A “B” worker is like a journeyman, someone who’s earned the classification after five years or more of work.

Work at ports varies depending on the ups and downs of the economy. As a result, the workforce needs of terminal operators fluctuates. At the Port of Vancouver, the contract dispute and lockout are limited to the grain terminal. Members of the ILWU are still able to get work at other facilities at the port under separate contracts with the Pacific Maritime Association.

But United Grain’s lockout decision, eliminating up to 44 positions, has curtailed employment opportunities for the Vancouver union members. And there’s an additional impact of the lockout on union workers in Portland, where Columbia Grain froze out an estimated 50 to 75 ILWU members in May.

In Vancouver, ILWU members who’d normally head to United Grain for work now arrive at the dispatch hall instead, in hopes of tapping a much smaller pool of jobs, said Brett Lynch, 46, who is a Class A dockworker.

It’s another ripple effect that makes it difficult for even Class A workers, who get first dibs on the work that’s available, to secure employment. Lynch said his income has plummeted by 30 percent.

It’s a nerve-jangling predicament that’s left Class B workers such as DeBord in an even tighter spot.

The lockout’s been hard on his family, he said, throwing its economic security into doubt. “My wife is working now,” he said. They’ve also refinanced their mortgage to cope, he said. In his long trips to other ports to find work, which have taken him everywhere from Tacoma to Coos Bay, Ore., he’s often come up empty-handed.

Meanwhile, what the ILWU calls “casuals” — workers who are neither Class A nor Class B, but who’ve demonstrated enough skill to have a shot at working the docks — have gotten gut-punched especially hard by the lockout.

These days, they might find just one day’s work in a single month, said Jennifer Sargent, a spokeswoman for the ILWU.

‘A fair agreement’

The contracts the ILWU and employers have agreed to over the years include robust pay and benefits. They also contain other provisions, including the Pay Guarantee Plan, or PGP, which provides a weekly income supplement to Class A and Class B workers who are unable to obtain a week’s work.

Such workers must meet certain eligibility requirements. They must be available to work in a given payroll week, and they can’t have refused any work offered for which they’re qualified.

Vancouver dockworkers DeBord and Lynch have both received “some PGP,” said Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, “but it’s only a partial wage replacement and has not been enough to buffer the lockout’s impacts on their families.”

The ILWU and United Grain decline to comment on the nature of their ongoing contract negotiations, but what they’ve said publicly in the past indicates the dispute isn’t about wages and benefits.

Instead, it’s about workplace rules and hiring policies — it’s about which side gets the upper hand over control of labor issues on the region’s waterfronts.

Details are few, but two basic arguments frame the larger conflict between the ILWU and Northwest grain terminal operators: To boost their competitiveness, the grain handlers say they want a new contract that mirrors employer-friendly terms the ILWU signed in February 2012 with Export Grain Terminal in Longview. Similar terms are in place at Kalama Export Company’s terminal at the Port of Kalama.

But the union says the demands by United Grain, Columbia Grain in Portland and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — which operates facilities in Portland and Seattle — aim to break the union. And the union says it made concessions, but still maintained fair workplace polices, in a temporary agreement it reached with Temco, which operates grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — said the companies only want contract terms that the union has already agreed to elsewhere.

“Our interest is in reaching a fair agreement with the union that allows us to operate competitively with our colleagues in the grain export business, including EGT and Kalama Export,” McCormick said.

He said United Grain continues to operate smoothly since the lockout. The company has reassigned some nonunion employees and its replacement workers, McCormick said, are “appropriately trained for the tasks they’re performing and have the appropriate clearances they need.”

Sargent, the ILWU spokeswoman, said in an email to The Columbian that Mitsui — a reference to United Grain’s Japan-based parent company — “has been incredibly profitable in Vancouver under our 80-year-old agreement, and they can continue to do so by maintaining high standards for workers and the community that depends on good jobs.

“Further,” she said, “the EGT contract was a first contract, and like all first contracts, is a starting point that will be built on.”

A year after the lockout, there are no obvious signs the conflict will end anytime soon.

But DeBord, who’s lived it every step of the way, including joining his fellow union members on the picket lines, said he’s optimistic a resolution will be reached. “It’s in both sides’ interest,” he said, “to make it work.”

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