By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Grain shipments have resumed at a Vancouver, Wash., export facility that recently locked out longshoremen's union workers over allegations of sabotage.
The United Grain Corp. facility suspended operations on Feb. 27, the first day of the lockout, but has since loaded one ship and is awaiting the imminent arrival of another.
"We have seen nothing so far that there will be an interruption of service," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the company and two other Northwest grain handlers. "We're capable of full service operation."
The company has been running the facility with managers and other non-union employees, but hasn't yet had to call in replacement workers, McCormick said.
The facility is typically operated by 8 to 22 workers per shift, depending on the equipment required, but United Grain has been making do with a smaller crew since the lockout, he said.
United Grain believes fewer workers could successfully run the export terminal, which is one point of contention in its labor contract dispute with the longshoremen's union, McCormick said.
The previous contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and several Northwest grain handlers expired last September.
United Grain and two other handers -- LD Commodities and Columbia Grain -- unilaterally imposed a new contract late last December despite the ILWU's rejection of the offer.
TEMCO, another grain handler, recently entered into a new deal with the union that's expected to become effective March 9.
United Grain claims that one of its employees, a member of ILWU's bargaining team, intentionally caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to grain moving equipment.
The company locked out the union in late February, saying it wanted to prevent further damage.
"We feel what we did was not only legal but prudent," said McCormick.
The union's local organization in Vancouver responded by filing a charge against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming it violated labor law.
The charge said United Grain "took the extreme measure of locking out its entire bargaining unit even though by its own standards it had identified and terminated the employee allegedly responsible for the property damage."
"This constituted loss of employment based on anti-union animus, and a sweeping unilateral change of terms and conditions of employment," the charge said.
The allegations will be reviewed by the NLRB, which will decide whether to pursue a formal complaint against the company, according to legal experts.
The NLRB will pursue such a complaint if it finds the lockout was sufficiently connected to unlawful labor practices by an employer, such as impeding the bargaining process, said Ron Hooks, the agency's regional director for the Northwest.
Employers can engage in an "offensive" lockout if labor negotiations have reached an impasse, though there's rarely agreement if a stalemate has been reached, said Cynthia Estlund, a labor law professor at the New York University School of Law.
A "defensive" lockout is lawful in cases of sabotage or to prevent damage to the employer, though the union can claim the action was retaliatory, she said.
If a settlement isn't reached, it is possible for the employer to permanently replace union workers under some circumstances, said Henry Drummonds, a labor law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School.
"There are situations where work forces go non-union," he said.
Lockouts originated as a defensive tactic in vandalism cases, but their use has expanded to exert economic pressure in labor disputes, said Michael LeRoy, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
"Everything both parties do is ultimately directed at getting an agreement," he said.