It’s not unusual for politics to enter into labor disputes, and it looks to us that it’s the case at a Western Washington grain export terminal.
United Grain Co. locked out the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from its Vancouver facility last year as part of a labor contract disagreement. The export terminal has continued to operate with company managers and non-union employees. Longshoremen have kept a vigorous picket at the front gate.
Federal law requires grain bound for export to be examined for weight and quality by inspectors from USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, or by state inspectors following federal regulations.
Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspectors had been performing the duties at the United Grain Co. terminal.
But inspectors complained that picketers harassed them, shouted obscenities and were threatening. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed state troopers to provide an escort past the longshoremen’s picket lines. That was in October 2013.
Now Inslee says the police escort originally meant only to be temporary has become the status quo. He’s pulled the escort, and the ag department has halted inspections.
With no inspections the terminal is effectively closed.
The disruption is worrisome for farm groups, who don’t want foreign buyers to question the dependability of U.S. grain exports due to the ongoing dispute between the longshoremen’s union and Northwest grain handlers.
The company has offered to pay for the state troopers’ escort services or fly the grain inspectors to the site on a helicopter, but says the offers were refused by WSDA.
USDA grain inspectors could work at United Grain as they do at the Columbia Grain facility in Portland, which is also subject to pickets. Federal officials are reviewing that option, but have offered no timetable for reaching a decision.
The company thinks the decision to discontinue state inspections is really an attempt by Inslee to get United to settle the contract. We have to agree given the measures the company has said it would take to guarantee the inspectors’ safety and cover the cost of their protection.
It’s not clear to us that any actual threat exists. After all, company managers and non-union employees have kept the facility open without serious incident for nearly 10 months.
Picketers should be prosecuted if they engage in illegal activity against those lawfully entering the terminal. But, even the company says things have been relatively peaceful over the last few months.
We can’t help but believe state labor and environmental inspectors would brave the picket to investigate a hypothetical violation within the facility. The state has a similar duty to inspect grain grown by Washington farmers bound for foreign markets.
If the state relinquishes its responsibilities in the face of a paper mob, it has no authority. Either state inspectors must do their duty, or responsibility for grain inspections throughout the state must be returned to the federal government.