Longshore union takes message on the road
Longshoremen have taken to the countryside in their ongoing labor dispute with several Northwest grain handlers.
Several representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have recently gone on “road trips” to rural communities in Washington and Montana to protest the grain handlers’ actions and try to win favor with farmers.
Along the way, they’ve picketed grain elevators owned by Columbia Grain, United Grain and Louis Dreyfus.
The longshoremen’s picketing resulted in a local union leader, Scott Mason, being cited for criminal trespass at a facility in Harlem, Mont., on Sept. 18.
Mason, the president of ILWU Local 23 of Tacoma, Wash., said longshoremen have the right to establish “primary pickets” at such sites. Mason said he has pleaded not guilty and would ask for a jury trial.
“We don’t plan on giving up this fight,” he said. “We have the right to put economic pressure to even the score until we can get both sides back to the table.”
A labor contract between ILWU and several Northwest grain handlers expired a year ago.
Negotiations failed to generate an agreement over work rules, and the handlers imposed a new contract at the end of 2012.
United Grain and Columbia Grain locked out longshoremen from export terminals earlier this year due to claims of sabotage and work slowdowns, which the union denied.
The longshoreman's union and the grain handlers are set to hold a meeting on Oct. 3, both parties said.
According to ILWU, the recent criminal trespass charge arose from longshoremen picketing alongside tracks owned by the BNSF Railway Co. at a Columbia Grain facility.
The action delayed a train leaving the facility because railroad workers honored the picket line until local sheriff’s deputies cited Mason and forced the longshoremen to move, ILWU said.
The picketers were previously told not to enter Columbia Grain property and to stay away from the BNSF right-of-way, said Frank Billmayer, under sheriff for Blaine County, whose office responded to the incident.
“All those individuals were previously warned about it,” he said.
Aside from picketing, longshoremen representatives tried to spread the word in rural communities about the grain handlers’ lockouts and unfair actions, said Mason.
“We needed to take our message further east and let them know it’s a problem for everyone, not just a few longshoremen,” he said.
Earlier in September, several ILWU representatives met with the Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
“Their message was that they did not want to impede the flow of grain from Montana to the Coast,” said Raska.
Raska said their more recent actions picketing at local grain elevators seem to undermine that claim.
“I wasn’t rely happy with that, given their message that they didn’t want to do that,” she said.
The longshoremen were likely trying to gauge the level of support among farmers to their cause, Raska said.
Tactics like picketing aren’t likely to endear farmers to the ILWU, as growers work closely with the handlers and see them as their customers, Raska said.
“I cautioned they wouldn’t find a lot of support among local producers if they planned to teach the grain handlers a lesson,” she said.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for grain handlers involved in the dispute, said the picketing activities haven’t had an impact on the companies’ operations.
There was a problem in August when grain inspectors from the Washington State Department of Agriculture said they were afraid of crossing picket lines, he said.
That situation has since been resolved because police have been escorting the inspectors to the export facility, McCormick said.
Operations at export terminals in Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore., have proceeded “smoothly and efficiently” with managers and replacement workers after longshoremen were locked out, McCormick said.
Mason of ILWU said the facilities would end up being less competitive and more costly to operate with replacement workers.
“I don’t think they can load up the ships as fast or as efficient as us,” he said.