Rallying support in Longview

October 5, 2011

Darrin Hoop reports on a solidarity demonstration for longshore workers in Longview, Wash.--and the high stakes in their struggle to defend union rights.

MORE THAN 1,000 people rallied at the Civic Center Park in Longview, Wash., on September 29 in support of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21. The union of 200 members is in the middle of a modern-day labor war against EGT Development, a multinational joint venture that refuses to honor its contract and use ILWU labor at a new grain terminal at the Port of Longview.

Local 21 is up against a host of enemies: several Fortune Global 500 corporations, local police and private security, a professional strikebreaking company, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a federal judge who has fined the union a quarter million dollars for the "crime" of fighting for its rights.

Worst of all--another union, Operating Engineers Local 701 signed a deal with EGT to provide longshore labor at the terminal, in defiance of the ILWU's contract for all West Coast ports.

But on this day, the community of Longview and labor supporters from around the region showed that while EGT Development might have the money, police, the courts and an unprincipled scab union on its side, the ILWU has the numbers and power of working class solidarity going for it.

Supporters rally to show their solidarity with ILWU members in Longview, Wash.
Supporters rally to show their solidarity with ILWU members in Longview, Wash.

Among the unions represented at the rally by members or official delegations were the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, Seattle Education Association, AFSCME and others. Speakers included local small business owners, representatives from community organizations and a number of labor leaders, including ILWU International Executive Board member Max Vekich and Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council.

Supporters carried picket signs that read, "Stop the war on workers" and "An injury to one is an injury to all." Some wore T-shirts that read "No Wisconsin Here"--a reference to the union-busting assault of Republican Gov. Scott Walker to strip public-sector workers of their collective bargaining rights.

THIS STRUGGLE comes at an important time for labor nationally, with unions representing only 11.9 percent of U.S. workers. But the upsurge in Wisconsin last winter appears to have been only the opening fight in new resistance by U.S. workers.

Since the summer, union workers at Verizon struck for two weeks up and down the East Coast, nurses and hospital workers at the Kaiser health care system organized coordinated strike action in late September, the hotel workers union HERE organized a weeklong walkout at six Hyatt hotels in four U.S. cities--and here in the Pacific Northeast, teachers in Tacoma, Wash., defied a judge's anti-strike injunction and won their fight.

Jeff Johnson explained in an interview why the battle in Longview is an important part of the developing fightback:

[The ILWU has] drawn a line in the sand, saying to this corporation that we're tired of being disrespected by companies that throw their money around. That disrespects the traditions, history and culture of a local community. Longshore has had a contract with vendors at the port since 1934 here in Longview, and everyone has respected that contract, but for EGT and their arrogance.

I think in the context of the global attacks on labor, working folks, immigrants, the elderly and students, [this struggle has] also drawn a line that we don't buy this bullshit about debt ceilings, deficits and austerity budgets. Just like the corporations have the money and could afford the contracts, they also have the money to pay the taxes that they're not paying right now so that we wouldn't be in the situation we're in right now.

Local 21 members have been escalating the struggle here in Longview since May, when they rallied outside EGT's corporate headquarters in Portland, Ore. Several mass pickets of 600-plus workers and supporters blocked railroad tracks to prevent trains from delivering grain shipments bound for EGT's new $200 million terminal. There have been civil disobedience actions at the terminal, and in other ports, the ILWU shut down operations for anywhere from 15 minutes to a full day in solidarity with the struggle in Longview.

ILWU leaders see this fight as part of a struggle of the whole labor movement. As Max Vekich said in an interview:

It's time to take a stand--it's way past due. Our union has been happy to help other folks over the years. We've done that, and we're going to continue to do that. We're going to continue to be relevant. We believe in a vibrant labor movement and a vibrant working class, not just in our country, but worldwide.

Labor activist Paul Bigman, who was involved in the Charleston Five solidarity campaign to defend East Coast dockworkers 10 years ago, echoed Vekich's point about the stakes in this struggle:

EGT has come with an effort to drive wedges within the labor movement to bring down the wages and benefits and conditions of workers in this port and to destroy the power the ILWU has built in West Coast ports. They found a local willing to provide theoretically union labor, but it's simply an attempt at union-busting.

This is the union that's the strongest on the West Coast--the union that's always there for other workers, not only domestically, but internationally. All of us need to be there to defend the ILWU.

THE FULL scope of this union-busting offensive was made more obvious the day after the rally, when a federal judge showed which side the government is on in this dispute.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton fined the union $250,000 for tactics it was alleged to have used during the course of the struggle. Among other things, the ILWU was fined for blocking trains and supposedly "storming" the EGT terminal in early September. The union has also been ordered to help pay the cost of militarizing the ports and the overtime worked by authorities to police the ILWU.

Leighton also ordered additional penalties for future violations, including $25,000 for the union, $5,000 for union officers, and $2,500 for other individuals. The ILWU plans on appealing the decision.

At the rally prior to Leighton's announcement, Johnson had sharp words about both the courts and the NLRB, which has ruled against the NLRB:

The NLRB and the courts can say whatever they want. The thing is people are going to do what they feel like they need to do. They can say only six people on the picket line, but at some point, if we aren't being heard, there will be 36 people on the line. There's going to be 360 people on the line. They can do whatever they want, but folks are going to say, "Listen to us and do something."

A nine-year member of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle described the role of the cops and the private security services employed by EGT and Burlington Northern Santa Fe:

They have been brutal and one-sided. To me, it's almost as if they're getting paid by EGT. When you look at the YouTube video where an EGT employee literally ran down two longshoremen, one of them went to the hospital, and the cops didn't do anything about it. The prosecutor refused to do anything about it. That's called vehicular assault. And nobody did anything about it, but the guy who went to the hospital got arrested the minute he came out. For what?

For now, the union has scaled back plans for more mass pickets. On the morning before the September 29 rally, the third EGT grain shipment train made the trip from Vancouver, Wash., to the terminal in Longview without any disruptions. It was "escorted" by heavily armed guards, with police monitoring all railroad crossings along the way.

In a statement, ILWU union committeeman Leal Sundet said the union chose to be the first ones to "tone down the intensity" to encourage EGT CEO Larry Clarke to sit down with ILWU International President Robert McEllrath to resolve the dispute.

Only time will tell if EGT will do the right thing and return to the negotiating table. For now, the Longview rally is a positive sign of the widespread support and solidarity for Local 21--which will need to be mobilized if EGT continues to take a hard line.

A growing number of people around the U.S. are paying attention to the outcome here--and unionists here understand the importance of their struggle to the national labor movement. As Johnson said:

This is Longview's Madison moment. They saw what happened in Madison, and what happened in Ohio. The ILWU, like many of our other unions, sent folks to the Midwest to help fight.

I think some of the lessons we learned from Madison are that the labor movement is a lot larger than unions. That's what they're learning down here as well. The ILWU has a lot more members out there who don't have union cards, but want to support them. It's another one of those moments that's applicable all across the country and the world right now. Workers and the community are standing and saying, "Enough is enough."

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