United Grain Corp. Accuses ILWU in Vancouver of Sabotage, Locks Out Workers

By Aaron Corvin and Emily Gillespie, February 27, 2013, The Columbian

A spokesman for United Grain Corp. said today that an investigative report shows a member of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union committed two acts of sabotage at the company’s terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association — a consortium of grain handlers that includes United Grain — said the company fired the employee on Tuesday and notified the union this morning that it is locking out dockworkers.

Jennifer Sargent, an ILWU spokeswoman, issued a statement today that said United Grain and its Japanese owner, Mitsui, have “fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they’ve wanted to do all along, which is to lock workers out instead of reach a fair agreement with them.”

She added: “It’s no coincidence that Mitsui-United Grain has chosen to throw out unfounded charges by an unnamed ‘investigator’ just days after the union membership ratified an agreement with Mistui-United Grain’s American competitors at Temco in Portland, Kalama and Tacoma.”

About 50 workers paced the main entrance to the Port of Vancouver, holding signs reading”UGC Unfair Locked Out.”

This morning’s lockout of union dockworkers at the Port of Vancouver follows months of contentious negotiations between the union and three of four operators of grain export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

An agreement over a new labor contract was never reached, with employers saying they would enforce a contract they favor and with the union, which rejected the employers’ contract offer, saying it would go back to work.

A longstanding concern about the dispute between the employers and dockworkers has been whether negotiations would melt down, threatening to slow or halt the shipment of billions of dollars worth of agricultural products.

Theresa Wagner, communications chief for the Port of Vancouver, said union dockworkers, who perform a variety of work at the port — not just at United Grain’s terminal — are not working today. That has left one vessel, prepared to offload Subaru vehicles, at dock still carrying its cargo. Normally, union workers would drive the vehicles off the vessel and onto the dock, Wagner said. “It’s sitting there and will sit there today,” she said of the vessel. “We don’t know about tomorrow.”

Wagner said there are picketers stationed at the port’s main gate and the east gate, which is used only by United Grain. She said picketing activities are peaceful and that the port has experienced no other problems.

Meanwhile, the longshore union also issued a news release today saying it had reached a new labor agreement with TEMCO, LLC, a U.S.-based operator of grain export facilities in Portland, Tacoma and Kalama. The union said a final agreement will be signed and implemented March 9.

Rick Anderson, a labor relations committee member for ILWU, who was among the union picketers gathered at the port Wednesday, said the union was able to hammer out a deal with TEMCO, so it’s willing to open fresh talks with United Grain, too.

“We want to get back to the table and bargain and they’re not interested,” he said.

Anderson said the union didn’t want to strike but was prepared to do so as far back as September, when it printed its picket signs. Now, he said, the picketing will last “indefinitely.”

“I don’t care if it takes five years. If anything, we’re stubborn,” he said.

Robert McEllrath, ILWU International President, said in the news release that “the agreement was achieved because American companies, farmers and workers recognize a common interest in our country’s resources and economic well being. That common interest is not reflected in the grain companies that have unilaterally implemented a contract that undermines American working standards at their competing facilities.”

Paul Butters, TEMCO, LLC general manager, said in the news release: “ We appreciate the constructive approach that the ILWU leadership provided in reaching this agreement, which is good for U.S. farmers and global customers who seek U.S. products.”

The lockout of workers by United Grain affected up to 44 union workers, said McCormick, the spokesman for the grain handlers.

An attorney for United Grain, Richard Alli, sent a letter today to union leaders outlining the company’s reasons for locking out workers. Alli said the company experienced an “unusually large” number of suspicious incidents involving equipment failure and damage. As a result, it hired a former FBI investigator to probe the matter.

The investigator’s report found credible evidence that two “suspicious events” were the result of an effort by a member of ILWU’s Vancouver Local 4 unit, who is also a member of the union’s bargaining team, to “sabotage and destroy company property,” according to Alli. Alli’s letter does not name the union member.

His letter goes on: “The two incidents in question involve the deliberate introduction of a metal pipe approximately two feet long into (United Grain’s) conveyor system as well as the intentional introduction of a sand and water mixture into the railcar progressor at (United Grain) …”

Alli added, “These criminal acts will not be tolerated by” United Grain.

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