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NLRB: Merit in claims by union, United Grain

Labor board files complaints against both sides in dispute at port

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: March 4, 2014, 4:00pm
2 Photos
Father Jeremy Lucas of Christ Church Parish of Lake Oswego, Ore., speaks to locked-out Longshore workers from ILWU Local 4 during an Ash Wednesday protest outside the United Grain terminal at the Port of Vancouver.
Father Jeremy Lucas of Christ Church Parish of Lake Oswego, Ore., speaks to locked-out Longshore workers from ILWU Local 4 during an Ash Wednesday protest outside the United Grain terminal at the Port of Vancouver. Photo Gallery

The National Labor Relations Board has found merit to claims of unfair labor practices filed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and United Grain Corp. against each other as part of a larger contract dispute between Northwest grain terminal operators and union dockworkers.

In separate complaints, obtained by The Columbian on Wednesday, the NLRB levels multiple allegations at both parties, orders them to respond by March 14 and schedules hearings before an administrative law judge in June and July in Portland. No rulings have been made.

The complaints, filed Feb. 28, underscore the intensity of a long-running conflict that saw another large protest by the ILWU on Wednesday at which two religious leaders called on United Grain to repent for numerous sins, including greed and wrath “in hiring a paramilitary anti-union security force.”

In a complaint favorable to the union, United Grain’s decision to lock out up to 44 Longshore workers in February 2013 was illegal, in part, because the action was intended to “discourage employees” from engaging in protected union activities, according to a Feb. 28 complaint issued by Ron Hooks, a Seattle-based regional director for the NLRB.

In January and early February 2013, before it locked out workers on Feb. 27, United Grain also illegally fired nine ILWU workers, Hooks alleged. Five of those workers had raised “safety complaints with management,” according to Hooks, and had refused to operate equipment “that they honestly believed was unsafe.”

At the same time, in a separate complaint favorable to United Grain, Hooks alleged that the ILWU engaged in illegal conduct on multiple occasions in March, April and May 2013. The unlawful conduct on the part of union members included: blocking access to United Grain’s facility by road and water; seriously injuring a security officer at the Westgate Vancouver mall “by punching and scratching him on his face and kicking and pinning his leg under a moving vehicle”; threatening “to rape the daughter” of one of the company’s managers; making “racial slurs” to the company’s African-American security officers and threatening to “beat (their) ass”; and shining “large spotlights” into vehicles that caused “permanent eye injury to a security officer.”

The ILWU and United Grain responded to the NLRB’s complaints in statements issued to The Columbian.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — whose membership includes United Grain — said: “The NLRB complaints issued this week found enough merit in some of the union charges and all of the company’s charges to proceed to the next step in the process, a hearing before an administrative law judge. We look forward to addressing all these issues in the hearing.”

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said: “It’s routine for companies to make allegations against workers during labor disputes, and the NLRB complaint is merely the beginning of a legal process that we believe will eventually clear these workers of the company’s allegations.”

She went on: “Mitsui-UGC” — a reference to United Grain’s Japan-based parent company — “has made these allegations against individual workers to distract from the fact (of) their illegal lockout that’s impacted hundreds of local families and hurt their ability to support local businesses and public services.”

‘Big sins’

As the NLRB process plays out, union dockworkers and supporters continue to publicly protest United Grain.

Standing in the back of a Ford F-250 Ranger pickup, United Grain looming in the distance behind him, the Rev. Brooks Berndt of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Vancouver on Wednesday morning took aim at what he called the company’s greed. He urged the company to repent sins, including “the sin of barbarity in demanding a 12-hour workday to satisfy their lust for profit.”

A bullhorn magnifying his voice, Berndt, joined by the Rev. Jeremy Lucas of Christ Church Episcopal Parish in Lake Oswego, spoke on Ash Wednesday to some 75 members of the ILWU and their supporters who’d gathered outside United Grain’s gate on the Port of Vancouver’s east side.

The company “has some big sins to repent,” Berndt said. “Can I get an amen?”

“Amen!” the dockworkers yelled in unison.

Vancouver police, including three patrol cars and two motorcycle officers, watched the gathering, which served as both a protest and as a religious service.

Berndt accused United Grain of some 13 sins, including the sin of “theft in stealing the right to work,” the sin of “heartlessness in failing to acknowledge the humanity of their workers” and the sin of “manipulation in hiring replacement workers who need the money.”

Every time Berndt spoke of a sin, those who’d gathered replied, “O Lord, may they repent their sins.”

Both Berndt and Lucas quoted from Scripture. Lucas said he doesn’t hate the people who run United Grain but that he feels sorry and pity for them. “Hate gets us nowhere,” he said.

Lucas also called on the Port of Vancouver and on the city of Vancouver to repent their sins, including the city’s sin of choosing to send the police “which you all pay the salaries of to harass you.”

Cager Clabaugh, president of the ILWU’s local unit in Vancouver, said the union has expectant mothers hurting from the loss of work at United Grain and “people struggling to put food on their tables.”

NLRB levels allegations

In the NLRB’s complaint against United Grain, it says that the company, in choosing to lock out workers, failed to provide them “with a timely, clear and complete offer” showing the conditions they would need to meet to avoid a lockout.

In the case involving workers’ safety complaints, the NLRB alleges United Grain unlawfully fired Josh Bielas, Tommy Boyer, Kerry Eels, Timothy Hayden and Monte Sinclair.

In another case, the NLRB says the company unlawfully “discharged and designated ineligible for further” work employees Larry Andrew, Neal Fuller, Kyle Lehto and Jason Stockwell. In its conduct, the NLRB says, United Grain “has been restraining and coercing employees” in the exercise of their rights, discouraging membership in the union and has “failed and refused to bargain collectively” with the union.

In its complaint against the Longshore union, the NLRB also alleges the union “recklessly pursued vans carrying” United Grain’s managers and security personnel “onto roads and interstate highways after they exited” from the company’s facility.

The agency accuses the union of several other incidents of misconduct, including: threatening to harm the Columbia River pilots as they sought to enter United Grain’s facility “by telling them, while they struck the pilots’ vehicles, that they would harm them and that they knew where they lived”; and threatening to throw United Grain managers “into the water while they were at the common dock at the Port of Vancouver.”

In October, the ILWU and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association publicly said they’d renewed negotiations over a labor contract and that the talks had been productive. Officials say they’re still talking.

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.

The quarrel between the ILWU and United Grain stretches to August 2012. That’s when the company and ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. About two months later, the company presented what it said was its last, best and final contract offer.

A volatile situation ensued: United Grain said it would enforce the contract it wanted, while the union, which had rejected it, said it would go back to work anyway.

On Feb. 27, 2013, the grain terminal operator locked out ILWU members. It based its action on its private investigator’s conclusion that union worker Todd Walker had purposely damaged the company’s machinery.

United Grain claimed that video surveillance footage showed that Walker poured sand into the gearbox of a grain-loading machine in December 2012, temporarily halting grain operations at the Port of Vancouver.

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The ILWU denied any wrongdoing, accusing United Grain of fabricating a story to use as a pretext to lock out workers.

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office later declined to file charges against Walker, saying it was impossible to identify the person captured on the video or to be certain “that the person in the video is actually damaging the machine.”

United Grain, which has said it fired Walker, filed a civil lawsuit against him in Clark County Superior Court.

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter