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OLYMPIA — A two-year labor fight between longshore workers and a grain company has spread from the Port of Vancouver’s docks up to the corridors of power in Olympia.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, wrote a letter this week to the Executive Ethics Board alleging that Gov. Jay Inslee broke the law when he directed state troopers last month to stop escorting grain inspectors past the port’s picket lines.

If the board director determines it has jurisdiction, it would assign an investigator to look into the complaint, according to Ruthann Bryant, the board’s administrative officer.

That decision could be made as early as next week, she said.

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But first, a sense of chronology: The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and United Grain Corp. (UGC) began negotiating a new contract in August 2012. With no agreement reached, union workers have been locked out of the port since February 2013 and nonunion workers are in their place.

After a grain inspector filed a police report claiming to have been harassed while crossing the picket line in August 2013, law enforcement began escorting the inspectors.

The Vancouver Police Department escorted grain inspectors for about a month before pulling out. That’s when Inslee stepped in, directing state troopers in October to escort the inspectors, who are state employees. Since the governor pulled the escort in early July, no grain inspectors have been going into the port, hindering the port’s ability to ship grain.

“The governor hoped this would provide time and space for UGC and ILWU to negotiate an agreement,” Jaime Smith, Inslee’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email Friday.

Smith, who declined to comment on Benton’s letter, added that Inslee was clear at the time that the troopers were a temporary service.

Benton’s letter to the ethics board constructs a different narrative.

“During the last month, Governor Inslee has unlawfully involved himself in a labor dispute, using his executive authority in an attempt to force a private corporation to negotiate with a labor union,” Benton wrote. “He has also failed in his basic obligation to ensure the safety of public employees in the performance of their duties. By his failure to act, he has jeopardized a multibillion-dollar industry in our state.”

Ripple effect cited

The cargo ships sailing for Asia and the Middle East from the Port of Vancouver carry with them 20 percent of West Coast’s grain exports, according to Pat McCormick, spokesman for UGC.

Inspectors take samples of the export shipments — usually wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum — while the commodities are being loaded, according to Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

While UGC has offered to pay for private security, Castro said those officers can only observe and report, and don’t have as much power as law enforcement to intervene.

While the grain-shipping season doesn’t get busy until September, McCormick said, the lack of inspectors has already caused problems. The company was able to get waivers on the inspections for two shiploads of grain, about 3 million bushels of product. But the waiver process took time.

“The first of the ships we managed to load was delayed 11 days,” he said.

UGC is scheduled to ship 17 million bushels in August, and the lack of inspectors is beginning to send delays rippling back as far as the Great Plains states, where the products are grown, he said.

McCormick says neutral parties other than grain inspectors — like river pilots and customs agents — have been able to pass the picket lines without any issues.

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, says the union should not be blamed for problems at the port. A similar American-owned company reached an agreement in February 2013. And she says UGC is responsible for creating tension on the picket lines. She praised Inslee’s decision to stop State Patrol escorts.

“Washington taxpayers should never have been forced to provide private security to a private Japanese corporation in the first place,” Sargent wrote in an email.

Corporate and union negotiators have sat back down at the table this week, and are scheduled to talk into the weekend.

“The men and women of the ILWU would rather be working in their jobs they’ve done for decades than walking the picket line,” Sargent said.

Joseph O’Sullivan: 360-236-8268 or

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