Foggy and cool weather kept a helicopter from flying into the Port of Vancouver late in the evening of Oct. 23, almost a year ago.
New documents provided to OPB detail how Washington Gov. Jay Inslee moved to evacuate those grain inspectors using the Washington State Patrol — a crucial decision that could have fallout for years to come.
Some say the state troopers’ intervention as escorts actually hurt contract talks and resulted in hard feelings between labor groups. But Inslee staffers say the state’s actions nudged the parties into talks that ended the dispute.
“It was alarming to get those calls late into that night that we had people stuck inside there and that they didn’t feel the situation was safe,” said Inslee Communications Director David Postman, referring to the trapped inspectors. “It certainly was an up-tic in what we think was already a pretty stressful situation down there.”
Police On The Ground
The grain inspectors were “essentially captive inside that facility,” said Postman.
United Grain had been using a helicopter to ferry state grain inspectors —who have their own union — over a picket line set up at the port by ILWU workers.
State officials started calling each other and filled in the governor that the inspectors were stranded. They began brainstorming the best way to get them out. Inslee’s then-chief of staff, Mary Alice Heuschel, called Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, who ordered law enforcement in to get the grain inspectors back out across ILWU’s picket line, Postman said.
The following morning at 8 a.m., Inslee held a meeting at the governor’s residence with advisers and executive staff, where he decided to deploy the Washington State Patrol to the Port of Vancouver.
It was an arrangement that would last nine months, but one that was re-assessed frequently, according to internal emails, memos and documents from Inslee’s staff.
Grain inspectors are key to the agriculture industry. They test and verify the amount and quality of grain that’s being shipped from Washington’s ports. Without the inspections, shipments typically stop.
Not long after the troopers intervened, the ILWU began to lobby the governor to withdraw the state patrol.
In a Nov. 21, 2013 memo to Inslee, the governor’s policy advisor on labor, Paulette Avalos, wrote, “the union wants you to pressure the company to go back to the table now or in the alternative stop WSP escorts, so that it puts pressure on the company to settle.”
In a Jan. 6, 2014 memo to the governor, Avalos wrote, the union “has lodged several complaints with our office, expressing their dissatisfaction that we are siding with a foreign company over American workers.”
And in May, the union that represents the state grain inspectors asked for the “immediate withdrawal” of the state patrol from the port.
The grain inspectors said they were caught in the middle of the dispute, violating sacred ground for unions: the right to negotiate.
On May 20, Greg Devereux, executive director of Washington Federation of State Employees, wrote in a letter on behalf of state grain inspectors that he wanted to “most emphatically emphasize that we have never asked for the WSP escort.”
Devereux went on to call the escort “a waste of taxpayer money,” and like the use of helicopters to get grain inspectors to work, a plan someone devised “as another method to circumvent lawful picketing.”
In an interview with OPB about his letter, Devereux said state grain inspectors were looking for any excuse not to cross the ILWU picket line.
Inspectors weren’t forced to cross the picket line and were allowed to work shifts at other ports, Devereux said.
But, he said, the inspectors had to pay the costs to travel to those ports — sometimes-long distances — and were put on early morning or late-night shifts.
Over time, the combination proved too much for some grain inspectors, he said, and crossing the line looked more appealing.
“After it dragged on for a period of time and our members felt like they were losing significant income … they were more willing to cross a picket line,” Devereux said.
Pulling Out Of The Port
By the spring, the state was looking for a way to remove the state police escorts at the port, according to a memo dated May 27. That memo came from Labor Policy Advisor Avalos.
“Everyone agrees that use of WSP escorts is an unsustainable situation, however, that being said everyone also agrees that removing them does not come without a cost,” Avalos wrote.
Under a section titled “Why consider removing WSP now?” Avalos wrote grain volumes at the port were at their lowest in June. That meant fewer shippers would be affected if the inspections — and therefore the grain shipments — were to stop.
“While there is undoubtedly an impact if inspections stop, it is mostly limited to Washington,” Avalos wrote.
“Everyone agrees that use of WSP escorts is an unsustainable situation, however, that being said everyone also agrees that removing them does not come without a cost.”
On July 1, Gov. Inslee called United Grain and the ILWU to let them know he was pulling the Washington State Patrol on July 7.
The decision to remove the state patrol effectively stopped exports at the Vancouver port’s United Grain terminal.
Once Inslee pulled the state patrol escorts, state grain inspectors sent word they would not cross the ILWU’s picket line, halting all but a few shipments from United Grain’s terminal.
The next day, the grain companies continued labor negotiations with the union.
On Aug. 11, just over a month after grain exports stopped, the two sides announced a tentative labor deal, which was ultimately ratified by the ILWU on Aug. 26.
Help Or Hindrance?
Carolyn Long, professor of political science at Washington State University-Vancouver, said the police escort likely only helped United Grain. She posits that as long as United Grain was still making money, there was little incentive for the company to negotiate with the ILWU.
“You have a regrettable situation where the state of Washington has an obligation to ensure its state inspectors are able to do their job to keep the grain moving,” Long said.
But she said critics of the governor would argue that using the troopers to escort the grain inspectors delayed a settlement.
“When the state patrol is withdrawn and you don’t have the inspectors, obviously the grain stops moving,” she said. “So, [the police presence] delayed a resolution perhaps by several months and may in the end have weakened the hand of the union in the negotiations in the first place.”
But Inslee staffer Avalos defended the Governor’s decision, arguing that the negotiations were ongoing and the administration believe that after each negotiating sessions a deal could be close.
“There were 74 negotiating sessions on this contract, to give you an idea how many times we hoped for – wanted to provide an opportunity for them to work this out,” Avalos said. “The sheer number of sessions that they had gives you some idea why we kept [the state patrol] in as long as we did.”
Eventually, she said, the administration realized a resolution wasn’t going to happen easily.
“It became clear that they weren’t going to sit down absent some sort of impetus,” Avalos said. “That’s – I think — what really drove the decision to seriously think about pulling the Washington State Patrol out.”
United Grain Corp. declined to comment on what the newly-released memos reveal about the behind-the-scenes activities of state officials.
But ILWU still says using state troopers was the wrong call.
“Law enforcement should never take sides in a labor dispute,” ILWU spokesperson Jennifer Sargent wrote in an email. “The use of taxpayer-funded state troopers as company security was inappropriate, and we agree with Gov. Inslee’s decision to put an end to it.”
Today, grain workers are back on the job at the Port of Vancouver, operating under a contract that’s in place until May 2018.
Tensions may be easing at the port. But Devereux said the relationship between the grain inspectors he represents and the ILWU is still strained.
“It caused a lot of bad feelings in the labor movement because you have folks crossing each others picket line and that’s never good,” Devereux said. “We are always looking to work in solidarity with each other.”