Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 set up picket lines at the Port of Vancouver, Washington after United Grain, a grain exporter owned by the Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, locked out union workers. The pickets on February 27 halted work at the port temporarily stranding one ship set to unload Subaru vehicles and interrupting the loading of grain to be exported abroad. On February 28, Mitsui-United Grain management resumed loading the grain.
Mitsui-United Grain said that it was locking out its union workers because it had evidence that one worker had sabotaged company equipment by putting a metal pipe into a conveyor system and sand and water into a railcar progressor.
But an ILWU spokesperson said that lockout was the company’s response to an agreement that union members recently ratified with a rival grain exporter.
“Mitsui-United Grain has 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,” said Jennifer Sargent, ILWU Coast Longshore Division communications director. “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 Mitsui-United Grain’s American competitors at Temco in Portland, Kalama and Tacoma,”
Rich Austin, ILWU’s co-negotiating chairman, said that if the company had real evidence about the so-called sabotage, it should have brought the evidence to the attention of the union. “If Mitsui-United Grain had legitimate concerns about safety or equipment, or especially the conduct of an employee, they would have come to us at the bargaining table,” said Austin. “Instead, this corporation has chosen to lock out its entire workforce — a blatant example of guilt by association, and a violation of US labor law.”
Mitsui-United Grain is a member of the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which had been negotiating a new contract with the ILWU. The association has demanded more than 700 concessions that would weaken the union and give workers less control over their jobs.
In December, 93.8 percent of ILWU’s members at ports in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver, and Kalama, Washington rejected the association’s final offer. In January, three of the associations member’s–Columbia Grain owned by Marubeni of Japan, Louis Dreyfus of the Netherlands, and Mitsui-United Grain–imposed the terms of the final offer.
Union members could have struck but decided to keep working and to continue negotiations that they thought could result in a fair contract.
A fourth member of the association–Temco, owned by two US corporations, Cargill and CHS–chose to continue negotiating with the ILWU, and in January the two sides reached an agreement that union members recently ratified. The agreement covers the Temco facilities in Portland, Tacoma, and Kalama.
Details of the agreement have not been made available to the public. It’s a five-year interim agreement that could be modified depending on the details of the final agreement between the union and the association.
The ILWU has urged the association to return to the bargaining table to end the dispute. The Associated Press reports that Leal Sundet, ILWU coast committeeman, sent a letter proposing several dates in March when negotiations could resume. Members of the association so far have not responded.
Mitsui-United Grain said that for now it would use management personnel to continue operating its export facility but as some time may bring in replacement workers.
ILWU members were angry about the lockout but said that they would maintain discipline on the picket line. “Who wouldn’t be upset to watch somebody come in and take your job?” said Cager Clabaugh, ILWU Local 4 president to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “But we’re going to take it in stride. We’re not going to do anything to put ourselves in a bad position.”