Friday, March 1, 2013

United Grain Locks Out Union Dockworkers

United Grain Corp., which operates an export terminal at the Port of Vancouver in Washington State, locked out its longshore workers this week, saying that an investigation found that a union leader sabotaged terminal equipment, a charge the union strongly denies.

“We cannot risk further vandalism that might disrupt safety or impede operations. Therefore this morning we notified the union of our intention to operate the terminal without ILWU labor,” United Grain President and CEO Gary Schuld said Feb. 27.

An investigator hired by United Grain is said to have found out through video surveillance and other evidence, that a leader with International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 intentionally sabotaged equipment, resulting in $105,000 in damages, according to the terminal operator.

United Grain, a subsidiary of Japanese trading company Mitsui, says it terminated the unidentified employee Feb. 26 and has turned over the investigator’s report and evidence to law enforcement for possible criminal prosecution. The company also says it intends to continue operating the terminal with management personnel and replacement workers.

The lockout is believed to affect between 40 and 50 ILWU members, dozens of whom began picketing the United Grain terminal within hours after the lockout was announced. The union is disputing the sabotage allegation, calling it “unfounded” and a response to difficult labor contract talks.

It also claims the lockout is a violation of US labor law.

“United Grain and its Japanese owners at Mitsui have failed to negotiate in good faith with the men and women of the ILWU for months and instead chose to aggressively prepare for a lockout,” Jennifer Sargent, the union’s Coast Longshore Division Communications Director, said.

Sargent went on to call the sabotage story “fabricated” as an excuse to lock out the workers rather than work toward reaching a new labor contract.

The sabotage allegation and lockout are the latest twists in months of contract negotiations between the union and Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which represents UGC and other terminal operators in Washington and Oregon.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association represents three companies: United Grain, which has an export terminal at the Port of Vancouver; Columbia Grain, which operates a Port of Portland terminal; and LD Commodities, operator of facilities in Portland and Seattle.

The association also represented TEMCO, which has facilities in Kalama, Portland and Tacoma, however the TEMCO and the union recently reached a contract agreement, which is expected to be signed March 9.

The Grain Handlers Association began negotiations with the union in early September 2012, weeks prior to the previous contract’s Sept. 30 expiration date, seeking a contract similar to what was worked out between management and longshore workers at the Port of Longview in early 2012 for the port’s EGT grain terminal. The contract includes several cost-saving measures.

However, the ILWU has said it won’t budge on some concessions the owners want, such as 12-hour work shifts, an ability to bypass the union hiring hall and being given greater control over the ability to fire dockworkers.