ILWU rallies grain workers locked-out by Mitsui in Vancouver

Photo by Dawn Des Brisay

Photo by Dawn Des Brisay

Hundreds of ILWU members and supporters marched and rallied in Vancouver, Washington, on March 8 to protest the lockout of ILWU Local 4 workers at the port’s grain export terminal operated by Mitsui-United Grain. The Japanese-owned company initiated the illegal lockout on February 27.

“It was great to see so many members supporting us from all over the region and also from Los Angeles, the Bay Area and even Alaska,” said Local 4 President Cager Clabaugh. The Friday morning rally created some commotion in Vancouver’s quiet downtown, as members rallied at Esther Short Park then marched several blocks to the headquarters of Mitsui-United Grain in a spirited display of union solidarity.

Union leaders were on hand to lend their support, including ILWU International President Bob McEllrath, Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe, and Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet. Washington State AFL-CIO President Jeff Johnson was also in attendance. Additional speakers included Inland Boatmen’s Union President Alan Cote and Secretary-Treasurer Terri Mast, Local 13 representative Luke Hollingsworth, a regional Teamsters representative, and local Episcopal minister Jeremy Lucas.

As rally speakers were winding up, McEllrath held up a copy of an interim collective bargaining agreement that another big grain exporter, U.S.-based TEMCO, had recently approved that was ratified by ILWU members. The new interim agreement with TEMCO was overwhelmingly approved in a ratification vote several days earlier by the combined eligible membership from Locals 4, 8, 19, 21 and 23.

At McEllrath’s invitation, rally participants marched several blocks toward the Mitsui-United Grain offices. While supporters cheered, McEllrath, Sundet and Clabaugh attempted to deliver a copy of the interim agreement with TEMCO to Mitsui-United Grain, but company officials saw the crowd coming and locked the doors to their high-rise building. After a brief standoff and some chanting, arrangements were made to deliver the interim TEMCO agreement to officials inside. The grain association’s spokesman told reporters that he expected to have the document e-mailed instead of personally delivered by hundreds of supporters.

Background 

ILWU members have been loading grain onto ships at Northwest ports since the 1930’s. In the decades since, agreements with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association were reached without major conflicts. That changed in 2011, when a new, overseas-based grain export company, EGT, built a $200 million facility in Longview, Washington, and refused to negotiate in good faith with the ILWU. The company then used Operating Engineers from Gladstone, Oregon, to operate the new terminal – triggering months of protest by ILWU members that eventually resulted in a first agreement with EGT.

Shortly afterward, the four company multi-employer group represented by the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association began demanding concessions to their own successful 80-yearold grain agreement. Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association members include:

• Japan-based Mitsui (United Grain in Vancouver)

• Japan-based Marubeni (Columbia Grain in Portland)

• Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities (elevators in Seattle and Portland)

• U.S.-based Cargill and CHS (TEMCO elevators in Tacoma, Kalama and Portland)

Playing hardball

The four companies that constitute the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association multi-employer group negotiated to impasse with Locals 4, 8, 19, 21 and 23 – that also bargained as a group. The companies insisted on hard-line, non-starter proposals and refused to budge before the grain contract expired in September, 2012. By November, they demanded that the Union accept a deeply-concessionary contract. That proposal was rejected by 94% of members who voted in late December. At that point, three companies (not including TEMCO), emboldened by the Taft-Hartley “slave act”, imposed their “final offer”, a concessionary agreement. At this point, the union decided that it was wiser to remain working – even under terms of the imposed contract – than it was to strike. This permitted the union more time to work on other methods of struggle, including rallying domestic and international solidarity along with other legal options.

Meanwhile, TEMCO, a joint venture of an American farmer cooperative and the American corporation Cargill, refused to participate with the three other grain companies that imposed the concessionary agreement. Instead, TEMCO agreed to work under the expired grain agreement while continuing to negotiate an interim agreement.

The union and TEMCO were able to reach terms on a five-year interim agreement that was ratified by members and signed on March 9. The TEMCO/ILWU agreement is subject to modification in order to reflect an eventual agreement between the ILWU and the entire Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.

The interim agreement does not break up the multi-employer group, and the interim agreement is subject to whatever agreement is finally reached with the whole group.

llegal lockout

While all of the foreign based and controlled export elevators have utilized the services of Gettier, a Delawarebased strike breaking specialist that offers “replacement worker services” and labor strife consulting, Mitsui-United Grain adopted the most hostile approach of the three recalcitrant companies.

Gettier was the firm that Rio Tinto hired during their failed 2010 lockout attempt against 600 Local 30 families Boron, California. Mitsui paid Gettier to use the same tactics in Vancouver that backfired in Boron: hiring expensive replacement workers who were put on stand-by, and stationing security guards around the plant who were dressed in storm-trooper costumes and given video cameras – hoping to provoke ILWU members into doing things that could be used by the company in court.

Just like Rio Tinto, Mitsui imposed an illegal lockout against ILWU workers. Mitsui locked the gates on ILWU members early on the morning of February 27. The company claimed their action was justified because an individual union member allegedly tried to damage equipment at their Vancouver grain terminal two months earlier – a claim that has yet to be backed-up with evidence. The individual they accused was dismissed prior to their lockout, so there was no justification for locking out

the entire ILWU workforce – aside from anti-union retaliation, which is illegal under federal law. Local 4 filed “unfair labor practice” charges against Mitsui-United Grain for retaliating against union members on March 4, 2013.

Towboat companies, Foss and Shaver, have bare-boated three ship assist tugs to the Grain Exporters who have manned those tugs with nonunion workers. The Coast Guard has issued a protective zone of 250 yards around the Columbia River Terminals of Mitsui and Marabeni.

The river pilots, citing legal requirements, are moving vessels with scab towboats through Local 4 picket lines. International Transport Federation (ITF) crewed vessels are being threatened and fined by the elevators when they refuse, pursuant to ITF contracts, to do longshore work such as opening hatches.

Since the lockout, Local 4 members have been staffing the picket line around the clock. The 44 positions at Mitsui-United Grain were often rotated among the 200 members of the local, so almost everyone has worked inside at some point, according to Local 4 President Clabaugh.

He credits Vice President Jared Smith along with members Jared Moultrie, Tommy Boyer and others, for helping to coordinate the lockout support effort. Member Monty Sinclair has been coordinating picketing on the water, using boats to extend the lines into the water where they can be seen by maritime unions.

“The membership support for this effort has been impressive,” said Clabaugh. “We’ve got faith in our International union leadership and are committed to going as long as it takes.” As The Dispatcher is going to press, Mitsui-United Grain, Marubeni-Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus have agreed to resume negotiations with the ILWU.

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