Showdown for the ILWU

September 12, 2011

Darrin Hoop reports on the West Coast longshore workers' battle to stop a scab port.

LONGSHORE WORKERS have shut down ports in the Pacific Northwest as they confront a scab grain terminal operation, block trains, dump grain shipments and stand up to a police attack on their picket lines.

The showdown conjures up images of the labor wars of decades past. But all this is taking place today--at the Port of Longview, 130 miles south of Seattle in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of Washington state.

The mainstream media are portraying the battle as union "thugs" on the rampage. But what's really happening?

From the local point of view, this struggle is simply about 200 members of International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 who have escalated a series of militant actions since late May in a two-year battle to force corporate conglomerate EGT Development to honor its contract and use ILWU labor at a new grain facility in Longview.

But in the bigger picture--as labor nationally faces budget cuts, attacks on collective bargaining rights, slashed wages, pensions and health care--Local 21's fight could affect workers all over the U.S. The struggle already provides important lessons for the direction unions will need to go in as Corporate America continues to escalate its war on workers.

Police break up a gathering of ILWU protesters blocking the path of a train near the Port of Longview
Police break up a gathering of ILWU protesters blocking the path of a train near the Port of Longview

THE STRUGGLE began when EGT signed a lease with the Port of Longview in June 2009 to build a $200 million terminal on a 38-acre site.

Robert McEllrath, International President of the ILWU, described the background to this struggle in a letter to all longshore members on September 1:

ILWU longshoremen work at every grain export facility in the Pacific Northwest--Seattle, Tacoma, Aberdeen, Portland, Vancouver and Longview. EGT Development has built a $200 million facility on the same site as a previous grain facility where longshoremen worked. That site is directly on Port of Longview property. EGT is attempting to break the master grain agreement and become the first grain export terminal in the Pacific Northwest to operate without ILWU. This constitutes an assault on over 80 years of longshore jurisdiction.

In May 2010, EGT began negotiations with Local 21 over terms of the contract under which longshore workers would be employed. According to McEllrath's letter, "In April 2011, the contract negotiations got stalled over EGT's demand to have longshoremen work 12-hour shifts without any overtime pay and the company's refusal to recognize maintenance, repair and master console jurisdiction."

A legal battle continues that may not be settled until a non-jury trial in April 2012. At the same time, in response to the imminent threats to their jobs, the ILWU began to step up its actions starting in May. There have been informational pickets at busy intersections in Longview, a rally of over 1,000 at EGT's headquarters in downtown Portland, Ore., and protests outside Port of Longview commissioners' meetings.

On July 11, according to local police, around 100 members of Local 21, including Local 21 President Dan Coffman, were arrested for allegedly using a pickup truck to tear down a chain link gate at the EGT terminal.

Then, on July 13, starting around 11 p.m., the union began the first of several mass direct actions to prevent Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains from delivering grain to the terminal. More than 600 Local 21 members and supporters blocked the tracks into the facility, preventing a train from delivering grain. After a four-hour standoff, the train had to be rerouted back to a terminal in Vancouver, Wash.

Then came the most recent actions, which led to McEllrath being detained.

Before examining the implications of this struggle, it's important to clarify just who is lined up against the ILWU.

There are several nasty corporate giants taking aim at Local 21. EGT Development is a joint venture of Japan-based Itochu Corp, South Korea's STX Pan Ocean and White Plains, N.Y.-based Bunge. Itochu ranks 201 on Fortune's Global 500 list of the world's largest corporations, and Bunge is number 182.

For more than two years, EGT has complained about the extra $1 million in labor costs it would take to pay for ILWU members, compared to non-union labor. Yet Bunge's profits were just under $2.5 billion in 2010.

Secondly--and unfortunately--the ILWU isn't just battling a corporate conglomerate. It is also dealing with a scabbing operation by another union. As McEllrath noted in his September 1 statement:

In July 2011, EGT, without any notice to Local 21, transferred the longshore facility work to a subcontractor, General Construction. Operating Engineers Local 701, without the decency of notice to Local 21, signed a contract with General Construction and walked through ILWU picket lines.

What's more, according to McEllrath, EGT has hired an out-of-state public relations firm and a separate professional strikebreaker and labor provocateur to spread misinformation about the union and its struggle.

THE FEDERAL government has weighed in, too--on the company's side. On August 29, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a number of charges against ILWU Local 21 and the Vancouver, Wash.-based ILWU Local 4. The NLRB was seeking an end to "violent and aggressive" picketing by the ILWU. Included in the allegations is the claim that an ILWU member in an airplane dropped a black trash bag of manure near the EGT administration building.

In McEllrath's statement to longshore members, the ILWU president pointed out that the ruling is very clear on the role of the NLRB in labor disputes historically:

This, unfortunately, is typical of the NLRB ever since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 transformed its mission to restrict the union and civil rights of union members. The NLRB exists for one reason, and that is to protect commerce at the expense of workers, and we are not surprised that EGT is employing the NLRB to put down a legitimate labor dispute.

On September 8, the union won a legal victory when a U.S. district court judge denied the NLRB's motion to ban picketing at the EGT facility. The judge reserved the union's right to peacefully picket the terminal.

But first, on September 7, under the cover of the NLRB process, EGT attempted to ship the first-ever official grain shipment to the Longview terminal. The train from Minnesota was met by longshore picketers and supporters at the railroad terminals in Vancouver, Wash. Then, later in Longview, according to the Longview Daily News:

several hundred ILWU protestors stopped a 107-car grain train for about four hours late Wednesday afternoon. The mile-long train, the first-ever shipment to the terminal, passed into the terminal when union protesters cleared the tracks after being confronted by police wearing riot gear and carrying tear gas and rifles loaded with rubber bullets.

During Wednesday's protest, union members threw rocks at police and sprayed a few officers with mace, [Longview Police Chief] Duscha said. He also noted that the protesters had attached picket signs to baseball bats and ax handles. Nineteen protesters were arrested Wednesday, some after scuffling with police.

Pictures also surfaced of cops roughing up ILWU President Robert McEllrath during these protests.

In response, around 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 8, hundreds of ILWU members and their supporters "stormed" the terminal, according to cops. Duscha, the police chief, said they dumped grain from train cars, cut brake lines on trains, smashed windows on a guard shack, and held six security guards hostage. The guards feared they'd be "injured or killed" by protesters, the media reported.

But ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman said the claim that they took hostages was "a blatant, total, all-out lie."

The mainstream media has referred to the shutdowns at the Northwest ports on Wednesday and Thursday as illegal "wildcat" strikes. In fact, the ILWU has used its contractually allowed monthly "stop work" union meeting to shut the ports down. Vancouver and Longview locals held their "stop work" meeting on September 7 while the Tacoma, Seattle and Anacortes ILWU locals held theirs on September 8.

What's more, no individual longshore worker is required to work on any given day. If no one shows up to the union hiring hall on a given day looking for work, the ports have to shut down due to a lack of available labor.

Regardless of how the ports were shut down, the importance of this struggle is crystal clear to the ILWU. Some of the biggest corporations in the world are trying to bust the union that has operated all major ports on the West Coast for the last 70 years.

The EGT grain elevator, which is expected to employ about 50 workers, would be the first built on the West Coast in the last 25 years, so the stakes are high for the ILWU. The union also knows the outcome of this battle is being watched closely by the employers' organization, the Pacific Maritime Association, which will negotiate a new coast-wide contract in 2014.

And as one longshore worker added: "This issue is important because the coast-wide grain contracts expire next month. The ILWU pension and welfare package is funded by tonnage. All grain operators want a level playing field. Losing this work would not only hurt our benefits severely, it would encourage other grain operators to not use ILWU labor."

One key to a victory will be solidarity within the labor movement. The ILWU has received support in the form of solidarity resolutions from Local 290 of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry and the International Transport Workers Federation. In addition, the Washington State Labor Council passed a resolution condemning EGT's attempts to pit the Operating Engineers against the ILWU.

Terri Mast, National Secretary-Treasurer of the Inland Boatmen's Union--marine division of the ILWU, said she wasn't surprised by the employer's attempt to divide labor. "This is an old and much-used tactic by bosses to divide workers and pit one union against the other when they have no allegiance to anyone. EGT knew that as soon as they contracted to General Construction Co."--and, through it, the Operating Engineers.

"They will use [the Operating Engineers] and drop them in a minute just like they did with the ILWU. This is all the more reason that we need to build solidarity between the unions. We can't lose sight of taking on the boss and sticking together."

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