Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:10 AM
PORTLAND — The owner of a Vancouver, Wash., grain terminal imposed a lockout on longshore workers Wednesday after a company-contracted investigation indicated a union leader sabotaged equipment in December and again in January.
United Grain, part of the Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co., said replacement workers will operate its Vancouver export terminal for an “indefinite” period, according to a statement released by the company.
A United Grain spokesman said security cameras captured the union leader carrying out both acts of sabotage. That union leader, who was described as a member of the bargaining team of Local 4 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), was not named by the company but has been fired.
“Deliberate attempts by an ILWU leader to damage equipment, disrupt operations and put co-workers at risk cannot be tolerated,” United Grain CEO Gary Schuld said Wednesday.
The union called the company’s allegations unfounded, and locked-out longshore workers immediately picketed outside the terminal. Local 4 ranks third in membership on the Columbia River with 177 longshore workers and 109 part-time dockworkers, according to its website.
“United Grain and its Japanese owners at Mitsui have failed to negotiate in good faith with the men and women of the ILWU for months and instead chose to aggressively prepare for a lockout, spending enormous resources on an out-of-state security firm,” ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said in a statement.
United Grain’s action to impose a lockout increases the tensions in a months-long labor dispute that has been closely monitored by Northwest grain growers who depend on the terminals to export their wheat.
United Grain has the largest storage capacity of any West Coast grain-export facility, with more than 7 million bushels of storage, according to the company’s website.
In late December, United Grain was among several Northwest terminal owners that declared an impasse in labor negotiations and imposed a contract on the unions that included new workplace rules. Those terminal operators included Dreyfus Commodities, which operates a grain-export terminal in Seattle. But only United Grain in Vancouver is involved in the lockout announced Wednesday.
Temco, another terminal operator that was involved in last year’s negotiations, did not declare an impasse in December and continued contract negotiations.
On Wednesday, union leaders announced they had reached a new five-year contract to work at Temco elevators in Portland, Kalama and Tacoma.
The scene in Vancouver on Wednesday was quite different. There, dozens of union workers gathered outside the Port of Vancouver’s main entrance, many carrying signs that said, “Locked out. UGC unfair.”
Pat McCormick, a United Grain spokesman, said the export terminal employs eight to 20 workers per shift, and there usually are two shifts per day.
Longshore workers perform other duties at the Port of Vancouver besides work for United Grain. Port spokeswoman Theresa Wagner said the union chose to protest rather than unload a vessel carrying Subaru vehicles Wednesday. She said the entire port intends to remain “open for business” during the lockout.
At the United Grain terminal, the first alleged act of sabotage occurred Dec. 22 before the company declared an impasse and imposed the contract. It involved a union official allegedly inserting a piece of pipe to shut down a conveyor, according to an investigative report released by the company.
The second incident on Jan. 4 involved the same union official dumping sand and water into a gear box, which eventually had to be replaced at a cost of $105,000 as well as additional costs due to disrupted operations, McCormick said.
McCormick said that surveillance cameras captured images of the worker concealing a container under his coat and then pouring it into the equipment. He said the investigation was conducted by a former FBI agent. It was concluded Monday, and turned over to Clark County prosecutors as well as the FBI.
Ayn Dietrich, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle, said the bureau is aware of the reports of damaged equipment and that the allegations of criminal conduct will be reviewed.
She cautioned that such a review does not necessarily result in the opening of a criminal investigation.
Information from The Associated Press and Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton is included in this report.
Troy Wayrynen / The Columbian
About 50 workers picket outside the main entrance to the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday.