Local View: Union, Grain Firm Must Seek Resolution to Conflict

By Todd Coleman, September 29, 2013, The Columbian

It’s been nearly a year since the contract between the grain handlers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired, and more than six months since United Grain Corp. locked union members out of the grain elevator at the Port of Vancouver. The ongoing labor dispute, which becomes more volatile and dangerous as each day passes, is hurting our community and needs to be resolved.

I’m regularly asked, “Why can’t the port do something?” I want everyone to know that we are doing something. In fact, we’re doing a great deal. From the beginning, we’ve openly communicated with both UGC and ILWU that our priorities throughout these negotiations are to keep people safe, protect property and keep the port open for business. And through some very tense times, port staff has risen to the occasion and managed these priorities for close to a year.

Unfortunately, as a landlord port, we are not at the negotiating table and have no say in how the contract language is written. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t invested in the process or the outcome. Port property is the stage on which this drama is occurring, and we deal with the negative consequences on a daily basis.

Threats of violence, bullying and generally bad behavior on the parts of both UGC and ILWU have made it necessary for the port to increase our security team from 16 individuals to 23 over the past six months. The cost to fill these positions tops $350,000 annually. We also established two new security gates to allow safe access of all parties into and out of the port, which are manned by port personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These costs are substantial and are redirecting port resources away from construction projects and other economic development activities that create jobs for our community.

However, although painful, these costs are not the most damaging consequences of the dispute. Rather, it’s the loss of relationships. Tension between UGC and ILWU continues to grow, as does the sense of frustration between both parties and the port. Our commissioners hear from concerned citizens daily, on both sides of the issue; and port staff spends much of their time reassuring nervous shippers and business owners that the Port of Vancouver USA can continue to live up to our global reputation for providing exceptional customer service.

Stakes are high

More than 2,000 people work on port property, with 80 percent of those workers living in Clark County, and millions of dollars in marine and industrial activities occur every day at the port. More than 50 tenants and hundreds of customers rely on this community’s public port to ship and receive cargoes such as wheat, wood pulp, steel, automobiles and jet fuel — generating more than $1.6 billion annually in regional economic benefit.

All of this is at risk because of the stalemate between UGC and ILWU. If our port can’t provide reliable service to the customers that move millions of tons of cargo over our docks, they will go somewhere else — as will the jobs and tax revenue.

Clearly, the stakes are high. We understand the parties involved are focused on issues fundamental to their very existence. UGC wants to remain competitive in a changing global market, and ILWU wants a fair deal for its membership and the ability to continue its 80-year history of working at the port’s grain facility.

We sincerely want both to succeed — but that will require the parties to meet face-to-face, be willing to compromise and work toward a greater good. We need a leader from UGC and a leader from ILWU to step up and do the hard work.

To that end, I’m offering the port’s newest conference table as a neutral place for them to come together and resolve their differences. It’s a beautiful wooden table, handcrafted by two talented members of the port’s maintenance crew. It’s where we hope many mutually beneficial agreements will be reached, and what better place to start than ending this toxic deadlock?

Other grain elevators in our region, such as TEMCO, EGT and Kalama Export, have completed successful negotiations. We can, too. Please join me in insisting that UGC and ILWU come back to the negotiating table.

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