Wheat farmers throughout the Pacific Northwest could easily have been the biggest losers had a labor dispute between grain handlers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union dragged on.
A tentative deal was announced Monday night. If approved by union members, the new contract should ensure grain bound for foreign markets will flow smoothly through terminals operated by three grain companies in the Northwest.
That’s good news for farmers. Ninety percent of the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is sold abroad, mostly to buyers in Asia. Any disruption in shipments puts those vital markets at risk.
We’ve taken no position on the underlying issues in the dispute, confident that either the interested parties or the courts would eventually sort out the merits of the claims and counterclaims.
We continue to take issue with how elected and appointed officials of local, state and federal government handled the situation.
For 18 months longshoremen were locked out of United Grain Corp.’s terminal at the Port of Vancouver. While operations continued, union members maintained a vigorous picket at the site.
Federal regulations require that grain sold overseas must be tested for weight and quality. In Washington, state inspectors have assumed that responsibility. But they reported that they were harassed and threatened by union members.
Although Washington state grain inspectors had for several months received a police escort into and out of the facility, Gov. Jay Inslee last month pulled that detail. Without the escort, state inspectors refused to enter the facility. Without inspections, the facility was effectively closed.
The USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration also declined to send its inspectors until their safety could be assured.
Company officials had offered to pay for police to resume their escorts, but were rebuffed by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. They offered to guarantee the safety of inspectors using private security guards, or to fly them in by helicopter to avoid the picket. The offer was declined.
The union denied its pickets posed any danger to anyone. But in a letter to company officials explaining why GIPSA would not provide inspections, Administrator Lawrence Mitchell cited a long list of alleged union thuggery that painted a different picture.
Even giving the longshoremen the benefit of the doubt, the perception persisted among state and federal grain inspectors that it was too dangerous to enter the terminal and do their duty. Violence perceived is violence achieved.
Local officials, the state of Washington and the federal government abdicated their statutory and regulatory responsibilities. They chose to stand down in the face of a mob.
The longshoremen had disputes with other grain handlers in the region. Given their success in Vancouver, there was little to stop them from employing the same strategy elsewhere.
Some will credit the actions of state and federal officials for forcing the grain handlers to the table. If that was their strategy, they gambled a billion-dollar wheat crop on a bet that could easily have gone sideways.