ILWU’s Pacific Northwest grain struggle continues

Holding the line: ILWU members have been walking the picket lines in Vancouver, WA and Portland since being unlawfully locked earlier this year. Pictured here at the Vancouver line are Local 4 members Mark Bolton, Steve Hauff, Daniel Coello, Local 21 member Louis McGill and Local 4 member Alex Nelson.

Holding the line: ILWU members have been walking the picket lines in Vancouver, WA and Portland since being unlawfully locked earlier this year. Pictured here at the Vancouver line are Local 4 members Mark Bolton, Steve Hauff, Daniel Coello, Local 21 member Louis McGill and Local 4 member Alex Nelson.

ILWU Locals 4, 8, 19, 21, and 23 are entering the 14th month of a protracted struggle to get a contract with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers’ Association (PNGHA). The companies that make up the PNGHA include Japanese-owned Mitsui/United Grain Corporation (UGC), Japanese-owned Marubeni/ Columbia Grain (CGI), French-owned and Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities (LDC), and United States-based grain company TEMCO, a joint venture of Cargill and CHS.

The ILWU and TEMCO reached an interim agreement (subject to the outcome of the negotiations with the larger multi-employer association) in February, and work at TEMCO grain elevators in Tacoma, Portland, and Kalama is proceeding without incident.

The three holdout companies, UGC, CGI, and LDC, continue to demand concessions – despite their healthy profits and near monopoly control over a large portion of the global grain market.

Recent legal developments

The ILWU got a boost recently when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) indicated that it had found merit in the union’s March 4, 2013 unfair labor practice (ULP) charge that UGC unlawfully locked out the workforce at its Vancouver, Washington facility on February 27, 2013 and was preparing to issue a complaint against UGC. The NLRB also indicated that it is considering filing a petition for an injunction against UGC pending the outcome of the ULP complaint.

Before the complaint was issued, however, the government shut down and the NLRB employees handling the complaint were furloughed. “This could be an important step toward holding Mitsui-United Grain accountable for breaking U.S. labor laws and violating the rights of American workers,” said ILWU President Bob McEllrath. “We will see if the NLRB takes the additional step of returning people to work by enjoining Mitsui- United Grain while they process our ULP charge to trial. The Board has this power under Section 10(j) of the NLRA, and we think the conduct of Mitsui- United Grain warrants the Board’s use of this power.”

This is the first potential breakthrough that the ILWU has had in the NLRB legal process in a long while. Typically, the ILWU is the target of NLRB intervention – especially on behalf of rogue PMA member companies (ICTSI and Kinder Morgan, for example). In fact, though the government is shut down and the NLRB complaint against UGC is being held in abeyance in the interim, the NLRB (Region 19) has “authorized” two staff members to continue processing an injunction against the ILWU with the intent of prohibiting the union from picketing CGI and UGC controlled assets.

Strong picket lines

ILWU members have maintained strong, round-the-clock picket lines for months since UGC locked out members of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver in February and CGI locked out ILWU Local 8 members in Portland in May.

LDC, which owns elevators in Seattle and Portland, kept its Seattle and Portland facilities closed until last week when the company opened its Seattle facility and ordered longshoremen to work under the multi-employer “last and final” offer.

Large inflatable rats are visible at picket lines in Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. The rats remind UGC, CGI, and LDC of their low standing in the community because of the lockout. These rats also serve to remind International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) representing electricians and the Columbia River pilots that they have abandoned union solidarity by crossing the picket lines. In addition to land pickets at UGC and CGI facilities in Vancouver and Portland, ILWU Local 4 and ILWU Local 8 are picketing primary targets on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and doing so despite robust Coast Guard vigilance.

The cargo moved by the towboat workforce on the Columbia and Snake Rivers is 100 percent union and is represented by either the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) or the Masters, Mates, & Pilots (MM&P). Both unions, where tow boaters are represented, are aggressively respecting ILWU picket lines on the entire river system.

To circumvent the strong support of IBU and MM&P represented tow boaters, the grain companies have pooled their resources and bareboat leased two vessel assist tugs and one specialized tug to push grain barges. The companies are manning the tugs with scabs. The Columbia River pilots, which are union, are crossing ILWU primary picket lines and the ships are being docked and loaded at UGC and CGI facilities on a regular basis. CGI and UGC even formed a new boat operator called Kadoke Marine, which uses scab labor, to circumvent Jones Act requirements that would otherwise restrict foreign companies from moving cargo from one U.S. port to another.

Tidewater Barge (whose boats are operated by IBU) then organized a scam to circumvent the effectiveness of the IBU’s support for ILWU pickets. Tidewater Barge and Kadoke/CGI/UGC signed a commercial deal whereby Kadoke’s scab tugs would move grain in and out of picketed facilities. The way the deal works is that at the point that the scab tug touches the Tidewater barge, the barge is leased to Kadoke/CGI/UGC. The barge does not come off lease until a Tidewater tug picks it up after its discharge.

This scam has backfired. At the point that the barge assets are leased to and under the control of Kadoke/CGI/UGC, they become a primary target and the legal object of ILWU pickets. Thus, Tidewater Barge cannot pick the empty barges up as planned because its IBU workforce refuses to cross ILWU picket lines.

Mr. Read,

Forwarding in case you missed it. This barge had brought grain down from upriver and was waiting its turn to transfer the grain at one of the terminals involved in the current dispute about which you have written. I have nothing to add to what’s in the press release, but the Tidewater staff may be willing to talk to you about it.

CAPT Bruce C Jones, USCG
Commander, Sector Columbia River/Air Station Astoria
Captain of the Port

During harvest, 50 percent of the wheat is transported by barge to down river export facilities. The total fleet operated by Tidewater Barge (IBU) and Shaver Transportation Company (MM&P) is approximately 88 barges. As of the publication of this article, approximately one third of the total fleet leased to Kadoke/CGI/UGC is stuck behind ILWU picket lines because IBU-represented tow boaters employed by Tidewater and MM&P represented tow boaters employed by Shaver refuse to cross ILWU pickets.

In response, Tidewater Barge filed ULP charges with the NLRB, claiming that the ILWU picketing is secondary and therefore unlawful. The NLRB (Region 19) issued a complaint on Tidewater’s charges. The NLRB immediately sought 10(l) injunctive relief to prohibit picketing that in any manner impacts Tidewater Barge pending the processing of Tidewater’s charges, which could take years.

The hearing on the NLRB’s request for an injunction is scheduled for October 10, 2013 and will be reported on in the next issue of the Dispatcher.

Coast Guard Collusion

Coast Committeeman Sundet describes a “war on many fronts” that includes government agencies and public officials who collude with the foreign-owned grain corporations. From the beginning of the recent struggle with grain companies – starting with the 2011 battle at EGT’s new terminal in Longview – the U.S. Coast Guard has consistently favored employers, says Sundet, who points to the agency’s preoccupation with “protecting property and promoting commerce” during a major labor struggle.

“The Coast Guard isn’t a neutral player in this fight,” says Sundet. “They consistently use public tax dollars to protect corporations who are screwing American workers.” Sundet points to the Coast Guard’s created “safety zones” that restrict union members from approaching company vessels and organizing pickets on the water. “It’s yet another way to shift the balance of power in favor of capital and curtail the already limited free speech rights of workers,” adds Sundet.

One Coast Guard official responsible for the lower Columbia River was recently caught favoring grain companies against the union. In early September, Coast Guard Captain Bruce Jones sent an email message to a reporter at the Oregonian who has a history of anti-ILWU bias. The Captain’s email message contained false and misleading information about a grain barge drifting and suggested that the union was responsible.

He stated that the barge was originally destined for one of the locked out facilities. In fact, the barge in question was not “waiting its turn to transfer the grain at one of the terminals involved in the current dispute…”

At the conclusion of his message, Jones encouraged the reporter to contact an employer involved in the dispute in order to provide additional comment about his erroneous report.

Besides providing armed escort services at taxpayer expense to the grain merchants and preventing American union members and community supporters from exercising their constitutional right to protest on the water, the Coast Guard has also turned a blind eye to alleged maritime violations committed by the companies’ non-union vessel operators.

Ignoring company violations

Unqualified, non-union workers hired to operate tow boats for UGC crashed into dock pilings at the company’s Vancouver, Washington facility. Although Coast Guard rules require vessel operators to immediately report such incidents, neither the company nor their non-union operators filed a timely report with the Coast Guard. Following the incident, the IBU notified the Coast Guard. Coast Guard officials do not appear to have conducted an investigation nor did they take any enforcement action against the company or crew.

On September 9, 2013, IBU President Alan Cote and MM&P President Don Marcus issued a joint press release to warn the public and Coast Guard that CGI and UGC “have called in a fly-by-night tug and towboat operator using questionable equipment and unqualified tugboat personnel with no prior experience on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.” Cote and Marcus warned that these unqualified personnel could cause “an environmental catastrophe at any time.”

Their prediction came true less than two weeks later when a scab tug working for the locked out companies ran aground in the river, damaging the vessel and releasing oil into the river. As The Dispatcher was going to press, it was unclear whether the Coast Guard had properly investigated the incident, tested the nonunion and poorly-trained vessel operators for alcohol or drug use, or reacted quickly to protect the environment from the spill.

Harassment by courts and police

The Coast Guard is not the only law enforcement agency taking sides against workers in the grain struggle, says Sundet. He points to a decision by the Vancouver, Washington Police Department that has been providing security services at public taxpayer expense to CGI to ensure that State Grain Inspectors cross the ILWU lockout picket line at their facility in Vancouver.

The State Grain Inspectors, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFCSME), refused to cross the pickets citing unsafe conditions associated with the volatility created by the company and their private security company. “The tax payers should not pay for the company to keep its doors open” said Sundet.

Another example of local police playing favorites came in late September when ILWU members in Vancouver, Washington received court summons in their mailboxes for alleged picket line misdemeanors.

Before workers could respond by appearing in court for their arraignments – and in some cases before the summons had even been received – bench warrants were issued for “failing to appear” which subjected members to the possibility of immediate arrest and detention. To date, 30 ILWU Local 4 and 8 members have been charged with misdemeanors for picket line associated incidents.

“It feels like the local police and government are running a kangaroo court system against union members,” said Brad Clark. “Foreign companies refuse to negotiate and take aggressive action to eliminate the union and are supported by the NLRB, the Coast Guard, the Port Authorities, and the local police.”

Corporate law-breaking called out CGI in Portland was successfully challenged after they attempted to illegally restrict picketing at their Port of Portland facility with the full cooperation and collusion by the Port. The union was successful in reestablishing a public right of-way in late September. City of Portland officials told the company to end their illegal obstruction.

Criminal charges dropped

A push by UGC to have criminal charges filed against an ILWU member accused of sabotage fell flat in September when Clark County’s Prosecuting Attorney declined to prosecute the case. The company had accused a Local 4 member of sabotaging operations last December under orders from the ILWU. UGC used the alleged incident as a pretext for the lockout. A lengthy investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges. Nonetheless, the company continues to litigate its civil charges against the Local 4 member.

Reaching out along the supply chain

In an effort to spread the ILWU’s message about a fair contract, Grain Negotiating Committee Co-Chair Rich Austin, Jr. and ILWU Local 23 President Scott Mason have traveled hundreds of miles upriver along the Columbia and Snake Rivers and into Montana and North Dakota with teams of longshoremen from various Pacific Northwest locals. “Our goal has been to meet with farmers and community leaders upriver, where the grain is grown and shipped,” explained Austin, Jr. “We followed the grain supply chain, talked with locals, and came back with some interesting information about operations at both Mitsui-United and Columbia-Marubeni.”

ILWU outreach materials have also been prepared, explaining why members are locked out by CGI and UGC and how the union is taking steps to reach a fair contract. The materials were distributed at local stores, coffee shops, community bulletin boards and other places where locals gather and get their news.

Congressional support

Six members of Washington State’s Congressional delegation have expressed their concern with the conduct of CGI and UGC in a September 30, 2013 letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. They urged Froman to raise concerns about the lockout while he meets with Japan and other nations to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in early October.

The letter from Congress members Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, Rick Larsen, Suzan DelBene, Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer stated, “The continued intransigence by Marubeni and Mitsui is placing great stress on workers dependent on these facilities for their livelihoods. The lockout is negatively affecting wheat and grain farmers in the Pacific Northwest and other states that depend on grain export terminals.”

The letter continued: “Mitsui and Marubeni forced workers to work under a concessionary contract that had been rejected by a 94% union membership vote, and locked out hundreds of American workers beginning in February and May at their two U.S. facilities. Cargill/CHS continued to negotiate with the ILWU and reached a fair contract with the union that was ratified in February that protects good American jobs.”

Injustice sparks resistance

As The Dispatcher was going to press, ILWU members were participating in more trips to rural wheat-growing communities in Washington, Montana, Oregon, and North Dakota to explain the contract struggle to farmers and establish picket lines in front of grain elevators owned by Marubeni-Columbia Grain, Mitsui-United Grain and Louis Dreyfus.

Defending the union’s right to picket resulted in ILWU Local 23 President Scott Mason being cited for criminal trespass at a facility in Harlem, Montana on September 18. Mason said he and other ILWU members will continue fighting for their right to establish “primary pickets” at those sites. Mason is pleading “not guilty” and is seeking a jury trial to contest the trespass charges.

“We don’t plan on giving up this fight,” he said. “We have the right to use legal, economic pressure on these big companies so we can get both sides back to the table and reach a fair settlement.” Picketing continues on and off the river system as far east as Montana.

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