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Judge warns union on picketing barges

Mateusz Perkowski
A federal judge will soon decide whether the longshoremen's union can lawfully picket grain barges as part of a dispute with grain exporters. The company that owns the barges claims its a neutral party that shouldn't be targeted by the union.

A federal judge during an Oct. 10 hearing urged the longshoremen’s union to voluntarily abandon its pickets of grain barges, but the union refused to stop the activity.

Chief District Judge Ann Aiken asked the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to cease the waterborne pickets as a sign of good faith in broader negotiations with grain exporters.

After an attorney for ILWU said that dropping the pickets would undermine its efforts at the bargaining table, Aiken said she would soon decide whether the activity is lawful.

“Just remember, you asked me to rule,” Aiken said.

Longshoremen have been in a labor dispute with several Northwest grain handlers for more than a year. Two handlers — Columbia Grain and United Grain — have locked out union workers, while longshoremen have picketed their facilities.

This summer, longshoremen also began picketing grain barges on the Columbia and Snake Rivers that are operated by Tidewater Barge Lines.

The National Labor Relations Board is now seeking an injunction against the pickets, claiming they unlawfully harm Tidewater — a neutral party with no authority to influence the labor dispute.

During oral arguments in the case on Oct. 10, an attorney for the NLRB said the agency considered the pickets a serious interruption to commerce.

Tugboats operated by members of another union — the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific — have refused to move barges that longshoremen have been picketing, said Susannah Merritt, an NLRB attorney.

“It’s completely directed at those Tidewater tug boat captains,” instead of the grain handlers’ facilities, Merritt said.

About 35 percent of Tidewater’s grain fleet has been rendered inaccessible by the pickets, she said. “As a result, Tidewater is unable to serve other customers who have nothing to do with the dispute.”

Michael Garone, attorney for Tidewater, said the company’s lack of access to the barges may force it to lay off workers.

The court should issue an injunction because the harm to the company’s market share and reputation is irreparable, he said.

“We should be able to move grain between any of those neutral locations,” said Garone. “Once the business goes, your honor, it may never come back.”

Robert Lavitt, attorney for the ILWU, said the pickets were a legal “economic weapon” in the dispute with grain handlers, even if they affect neutral parties.

Transporting grain along the river in barges is a crucial part of the grain handlers’ business, so picketing barges that serve them is an allowable “primary picket” — not an unlawful “secondary picket” as alleged by NLRB, he said.

“The operation of the elevators themselves rely on the barges being brought to and from” various locations, Lavitt said.

The barges are an extension of the grain handlers’ facilities because they contain grain bound for export, he said. “The union has no interest in interfering in Tidewater’s other business.”

Lavitt suggested that the judge could order the picketers to establish contact with tugboat captains to ensure the barges held grain owned by the handlers, but Aiken seemed dubious of the idea.

“You can’t check whether that actually happened,” she said.

After the oral arguments officially concluded, Aiken said the recent resumption of negotiations “cries out for people looking at the bigger picture.”

Negotiations between the ILWU and grain handlers broke down more than six months ago, but recently the parties returned to the bargaining table and agreed to further meetings this autumn.

Aiken asked ILWU to consider stopping its waterborne pickets as long as the talks continue.

After conferring with the union, Lavitt said that longshoremen would be willing to allow Tidewater to clear out barges that are currently stranded. However, the union would then resume picketing barges that are identified as serving the grain handlers.

NLRB’s attorney said this offer wasn’t acceptable and urged Aiken to rule whether the pickets were lawful.

After giving ILWU a second chance to completely withdraw the pickets, which the union refused, Aiken said she would reach a decision shortly.



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