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NLRB, barge company go to court over boat pickets

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

A barge company is seeking damages from the longshoremen's union for establishing picket lines that impede the progress of its boats. The longshoremen are protesting lockouts by two grain handlers with whom they are in a labor dispute.

A barge company is seeking damages from the longshoremen’s union for establishing waterborne picket lines that impede grain shipments.

Tidewater Barge Lines, based in Vancouver, Wash., has filed a lawsuit claiming the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s picket lines violate federal labor law.

The picket lines are aimed at inducing the barge company’s employees — represented by the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific — to refuse transporting products for two grain handlers, the complaint said.

The grain handlers, United Grain and Columbia Grain, have locked out longshoremen from export terminals in Vancouver and Portland during a yearlong labor contract dispute.

Tidewater Barge Lines claims the pickets have negatively affected its business even though it has no conflict with the longshoremen’s union.

The National Labor Relations Board has also asked a federal judge for an injunction that would stop ILWU’s waterborne pickets that harm the barge company.

An investigation by the NLRB has led the agency to believe the pickets are an unfair labor practice because Tidewater is a neutral party in the dispute that has no control over the grain handlers’ labor practices, according to court documents.

The agency said it has documented several incidents in which longshoremen maneuvered picket boats on the Columbia and Snake rivers to impede the movement of Tidewater vessels.

Some of the incidents occurred near the Port of Wilma in Washington, where Tidewater crews refused to cross ILWU picket lines to ship grain from facilities owned by Columbia Grain, according to a court document filed by NLRB.

Other incidents occurred near Hayden Island in Oregon, where longshoremen picketed tugboats to prevent Tidewater from accessing grain barges, the document said.

Disrupting the business of an “unoffending neutral employer” violates the National Labor Relations Act and such coercive conduct should be enjoined by the court, the NLRB said.

The ILWU has filed court papers claiming that its activities are constitutionally protected free speech and so the injunction request must be denied.

The union argues that “picketing of grain barges, even when hauled to and from the locked out elevators by neutral secondary employers, does not transform lawful primary picketing into unlawful conduct.”

The picketing is aimed only at barges that service the Columbia Grain and United Grain, the ILWU said. The union also alleges that NLRB hasn’t met the legal threshold to win an injunction.

“The preliminary injunction sought by the board here creates significant risks to the First Amendment, because it seeks to enjoin the union from peaceful picketing and publicizing its primary dispute with the locked-out elevators,” the ILWU said.

Oral arguments about the proposed injunction were set for Oct. 10 before a federal court in Portland.

Meanwhile, there appears to be thawing in relations between the grain handlers and the longshoremen’s union.

Negotiations between the two groups broke down more than six months ago.

However, the parties held a meeting on Oct. 3, said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the grain handlers.

While the details of the talks have not been made public, the grain handlers and ILWU have agreed to additional meetings in October and November, he said.



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