Grain Handler Locks Out Unionby Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press, February 27, 2013
The United Grain Corp. has locked out the longshoremen's union from its export facility in Vancouver, Wash., claiming a union member sabotaged its equipment.
The company is one of several Northwest grain handlers involved in a labor contract dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
According to a letter United Grain's attorney sent to the ILWU, the company fired an employee for allegedly introducing a two-foot-long metal pipe into its conveyor system as well as sand and water into a railcar mover.
United Grain believes the sabotage caused more than $100,000 in damage and has turned its investigation over to law enforcement authorities.
The employee was a leader of the union's local organization and a member of its bargaining team, the letter said.
United Grain had not intended to lock out union members from the terminal despite the labor contract dispute, but after learning of the sabotage it has reevaluated its relationship with ILWU, the letter said.
"In doing so, UGC reluctantly has come to the conclusion that it can no longer accept the substantial risk of perhaps even more serious sabotage and/or damage to its equipment by continuing to permit ILWU members, including those at Local 4, to work under the terms of its implemented contract offer," the letter said.
The lockout began on Feb. 27.
The ILWU said in an email that the company "has fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they've wanted to do all along, which is lock workers out instead of reach a fair agreement with them." Companies can legally lock workers out to protect themselves against the destruction of property, said Henry Drummonds, a labor law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School.
However, a company can only take this defensive move if the damage is part of a concerted activity designed to put pressure on it, he said. "This assumes this wasn't just a rogue or hot-headed union activist."
The union said it's "no coincidence" that United Grain has made these "unfounded charges" shortly after a competing grain handler -- TEMCO -- reached a five-year labor contract deal with ILWU.
TEMCO, which operates export facilities in Portland, Ore., and Tacoma and Kalama, Wash., split from other grain handlers that are negotiating as a group. The new agreement with ILWU will go into effect March 9.
The union's last contract with several grain handlers expired last September. After declaring a bargaining impasse, the grain handlers implemented a contract in late December that had been rejected by the ILWU.
The dispute is worrisome for farmers and grain companies in the Northwest and beyond, as shipping disruptions could impede grain exports.
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