The Washington state Department of Agriculture says it will soon stop
providing grain inspection services at United Grain Corp.'s facility at the Port
of Vancouver unless steps are taken to make it safer for its inspectors to cross
picket lines to conduct their work.
Don Hover, director of the state Department of Agriculture, outlined his concerns in an Aug. 19 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the behavior of pickets from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union "escalates, more staff are feeling unsafe in crossing the picket lines and are opting not to do so," he wrote.
Hover's letter adds yet another twist to the continuing standoff between local longshore workers and United Grain. The feud, part of a larger conflict in the Northwest, has attracted a review by the National Labor Relations Board, prompted letters from government leaders urging the parties to return to the bargaining table and triggered concerns on the part of Eastern Washington grain growers who worry about getting their products to overseas markets.
The possibility that state agricultural inspectors, charged with protecting U.S. and international grain trade and consumer interests, may discontinue their work at United Grain raises a fresh concern: that the average 3.2 million metric tons of grain that moves through the Port of Vancouver to overseas markets will stop moving. About 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports move through the port.
But Pat McCormick, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which includes United Grain, said that's an unlikely scenario. If the state declines to conduct inspections, McCormick said Tuesday in an email to The Columbian, the company expects federal inspectors to "provide the services required under federal law."
McCormick said the port needs to provide adequate security so inspectors don't have to face "intimidating and threatening" behavior on the part of ILWU members. Theresa Wagner, the port's communications manager, said the port has spelled out rules for keeping everyone safe and that its security team and plan are solid.
In an email to The Columbian, Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said United Grain is "failing to take responsibility for its own provocative moves" that have led to increased tensions at the port and to an unsafe environment.
Negotiations between the ILWU and United Grain started a year ago. On Feb. 27, the company locked out 44 workers at the Port of Vancouver after alleging a union official had sabotaged equipment. The union has denied wrongdoing, and the Clark County prosecuting attorney hasn't yet decided whether to file criminal charges.
'Vulnerable ... to harm'
In his letter, Hover, the director of the state Department of Agriculture, says the vulnerability of inspectors has been made worse because of "limited physical access" to the general area near a gate set up by the port; "potential significant wait time" for Vancouver police to arrive; and "inadequate capacity for port officers to intervene."
In one Aug. 14 incident involving 40 picketers, our "staff was vulnerable to serious physical harm," Hover wrote to Randall Jones, deputy administrator with the Federal Grain Inspection Service, in the letter obtained by The Columbian this week. "This incident included a picketer opening the vehicle door of one of
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