A major shipping bottleneck in Washington state threatens Montana’s $1 billion wheat crop just as harvest begins.
Grain inspectors afraid to cross union picket lines at the Port of Vancouver have stopped performing inspection and weighing services at the United Grain export terminal. The inspections, which are required before grain may be shipped overseas, ended several weeks ago when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee canceled police escorts for inspectors, who are state employees working under agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
United Grain is a major buyer of Montana grain, with million-bushel-capacity elevators in Conrad, Culbertson, Moccasin and Pompeys Pillar. Wheat producers are concerned the grain inspection meltdown will result in smaller profits for Montana farmers.
“One of our major export terminals is effectively shut down,” said Lola Raska, Montana Grain Growers Association executive vice president. “That company has invested heavily in Montana. They’ve constructed five terminals; four of them are in Montana. They have really committed to sourcing Montana grain.”
At issue is a labor contract dispute, now in its second year, between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and United Grain. State grain inspectors have declined to cross the picket line without protection from harassment.
“It has run the gamut from name calling, to spitting in vehicles to foul language, to what I would characterize as intimidating language,” said Hector Castro, Washington Department of Agriculture communications director. At one point, a picketer opened the car door of a grain inspector driving across the picket line, Castro said. Two incidents have been reported to the police, although no arrests were made. Until Inslee stopped the police escorts there were usually two state troopers accommodating carpools of inspectors onto the United Grain property.
A spokesperson for Inslee told The Gazette the governor ended what was supposed to be temporary police escort after it became clear that negotiations between the union and United Grain had stalled. The escorts lasted eight months.
Federal law requires the U.S. grain inspectors to take over when services aren’t being provided. Grain groups that ship commodities out of the United Grain terminal have asked the federal government to take over the inspections and provide the security needed to protect inspectors from union picketers. Castro said WSDA also asked a few weeks ago for federal grain inspectors to take over, but the federal government hasn’t responded.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont, wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for federal intervention. For Montana, which exports roughly 80 percent of its wheat — mostly through Pacific Northwest ports — the lack of inspection at United Grain could be disastrous. At the least, the stoppage stirs doubt about Montana’s ability to reliably deliver wheat to the Asian Pacific, Daines said.