* United Grain says union leader sabotaged equipment
* Company and union embroiled in contract dispute
* Union disputes charge of sabotage
By Karl Plume
Feb 27 United Grain Corp (UGC) on Wednesday locked out union workers from its Port of Vancouver grain export terminal in the U.S. Pacific Northwest after an investigation unearthed evidence that a union leader sabotaged equipment there, a spokesman for the grain company said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) disputed the charge and said the lockout was a response to the union's recent contract agreement with a competing grain company.
UGC, a subsidiary of Japanese trading company Mitsui, has terminated the employee and intends to continue operating with management personnel and replacement workers, said Pat McCormick, a spokesman representing UGC and several other grain companies in the region.
An investigator hired by UGC concluded, based on video surveillance and other evidence, that an ILWU Local 4 leader intentionally sabotaged equipment resulting in $105,000 in damages, the spokesman said.
"Deliberate attempts by an ILWU leader to damage equipment, disrupt operations and put coworkers at risk cannot be tolerated," Gary Schuld, president and chief executive officer of UGC said.
"We cannot risk further vandalism that might disrupt safety or impede operations. Therefore this morning we notified the union of our intention to operate the terminal without ILWU labor," he said.
UGC turned over the evidence and the investigator's report to law enforcement and will consider criminal prosecution, Schuld said.
It was unclear how many workers were affected by the lockout as the size of the workforce depends on operational needs. An annual report from the Pacific Maritime Association, a group representing shippers and terminal operators, said ILWU Local 4 has about 190 registered members, McCormick said.
The alleged incidents and resulting lockout were the latest development in a heated battle between the union and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a coalition of grain companies in the region.
After an ILWU contract with the terminals expired late last year and a federally appointed mediator failed to bring the two parties to an agreement, most of the grain companies in the coalition declared talks at an impasse and imposed their "last, best and final" contract offer terms.
Union members have worked under those terms while the union disputed the companies' declaration of impasse and filed an unfair labor practice charge.
The ILWU claimed the lockout was a response to the union's recent contract agreement with a competing grain company that broke with the grain company coalition late last year.
"Mitsui-United Grain has fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they've wanted to do all along, which is to lock workers out instead of reach a fair agreement with them," said Jennifer Sargent, ILWU Coast Longshore Division communications director.
"It's no coincidence that Mitsui-United Grain has chosen to throw out unfounded charges by an unnamed 'investigator' just days after the union membership ratified an agreement with Mitsui-United Grain's American competitors at Temco in Portland, Kalama and Tacoma," she said.
About 25 percent of U.S. grain and oilseed exports are shipped via the Pacific Northwest, the second-largest grain port region after the U.S. Gulf Coast. It is also the most direct shipping route for U.S. grains bound for Asia.
(Additional reporting by Christine Stebbins; editing by Carol Bishopric)