Bill Mongelluzzo, August 5, 2014, JOC.com
The United Grain export terminal in Vancouver, Washington, which has been picketed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since dockworkers were locked out the facility in February 2013, is urging national farm interests to join the company in convincing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assign inspectors so grain exports can return to normal.
“Denial of inspection services is damaging our business and threatens the farmers and customers we serve,” John Todd, vice president and operations manager at United Grain Corp., said Monday in a letter to Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau. The letter was shared with 22 other farm and grain groups across the country.
Contract negotiations between several Pacific Northwest grain terminals, including United Grain, and the ILWU are continuing on and off this summer. The parties met last week and are scheduled to resume talks Aug. 10-11 with assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The grain contract is separate from the coastwide contract being negotiated by the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, and the grain companies are not PMA members. However, whenever the ILWU engages in contract talks with the grain handlers, it must recess the coastwide talks with the PMA. The coastwide contract expired on July 1 and ILWU members have been working at West Coast ports without a contract since then.
The Federal Grain Inspection Service is charged with the responsibility of inspecting and weighing U.S. grain for quality before it is exported. The FGIS is permitted to designate inspection responsibilities to other qualified agencies. Last year, the Washington State Department of Agriculture was designated to inspect the grain.
WSDA last fall expressed concern about the safety of its inspectors because of the continuing picketing of the United Grain terminal by ILWU members. In October, Washington state patrol officers were assigned to provide escorts for the state agriculture inspectors.
Last month, however, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was terminating the state patrol escorts for budgetary reasons, and WSDA stopped sending its inspectors to the United Grain facility. The company is therefore requesting that federal grain inspectors replace the state inspectors.
However, USDA’s Undersecretary Edward Avalos denied the request, citing safety concerns for federal inspectors because of the picketers. United Grain responded that security personnel provided by the Port of Vancouver, Washington, are available to provide safe passage for inspectors, and reports performed this past year by state and federal agencies concluded that the safety of inspectors was being protected.
United Grain in July was able to secure two waivers to load grain without inspections, but the total grain loaded onto the two vessels was less than 3 million bushels, said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.
United Grain today secured two additional waivers for August. The facility is scheduled to export 17 million bushels this month, but the two waivers will result in only a fraction of the grain being exported, he said.
The ILWU has stated throughout the conflict that its members work at several other grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest, as they have done for more than 70 years, under contracts that are fair for the workers and profitable for the grain companies.