Federal regulators claim a Northwest grain handler and the longshoremen’s union have both engaged in unfair labor practices during a contract dispute.
The National Labor Relations Board alleges in a complaint that United Grain in Vancouver, Wash., locked out union workers without providing “a timely, clear and complete offer setting forth the conditions they must satisfy to avoid the lockout.”
In another case, NLRB lays out numerous instances of assault and intimidation by longshoremen against representatives of United Grain.
Bringing complaints against the employer as well as the union may put pressure on both parties to settle, but the legal process isn’t a cure-all, said Henry Drummonds, a professor specializing in labor relations at Lewis & Clark Law School.
“It’s a step forward but it’s not going to resolve the underlying dispute,” Drummonds said.
A contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and several Northwest grain handlers expired on Sept. 30, 2012.
The grain handlers imposed a new contract but allegations of sabotage led United Grain to lock out workers in February 2013.
The NLRB, which oversees labor disputes, has found that United Grain wrongfully locked out workers “without affording the union an opportunity to bargain over respondent’s conduct.”
The agency also faulted the grain handler for discharging several workers who complained that the new contract had resulted in unsafe working conditions.
Longshoremen haven’t been blameless in the dispute, the NLRB alleges.
The agency alleges in its court filing that United Grain’s managers and security guards suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of longshoremen:
• Rocks were thrown at a security guard.
• A security guard was punched and scratched in the face and his leg was pinned under a car.
• A security guard was struck in the head, knocking off his hardhat.
• Threats were made to rape a manager’s daughter, throw managers into the river and otherwise harm them.
• Longshoremen “impliedly threatened” managers by asking about their children’s wellbeing and claiming to know where the managers lived.
• Vendors serving the United Grain facility were assaulted, harassed and had their vehicle damaged.
• Spotlights were shined into vehicles carrying managers and security guards in an apparent attempt to blind the drivers.
• Vans carrying managers and security guards were followed by longshoremen after they left the facility.
• A tugboat guiding a grain vessel was blocked from the facility.
In both complaints, the NLRB’s regional director found the claims to have merit and will pursue the charges before an administrative law judge, said John Fawley, an attorney for the agency.
Hearings in Portland, Ore., have been scheduled for June 30 in the case against United Grain and July 21 in the case against ILWU, but those dates are subject to change, he said.
While the complaints are a significant development, the legal process is likely to be prolonged, said Drummonds.
An administrative law judge can find either party committed unfair business practices and order them to “cease and desist” the conduct, he said.
However, the losing party can still challenge that finding before the five board members of the NLRB and then a federal appeals court, Drummonds said.
The legal process provides an outlet for tensions between the employer and union, but only the parties involved can conclusively end the dispute, he said.
The legal battle could potentially continue indefinitely unless they reach a settlement, Drummonds said.
The controversy centers on workplace rules, like hiring practices and the number of workers needed to operate the facility.
Farmers in the Northwest and across the country have been watching the conflict as it could affect U.S. grain exports to Asia.
Drummonds said the legal process is akin to a husband and wife trying to win individual arguments rather than mending their differences.
“What really needs to happen is this marital relationship needs to be repaired,” he said.