The battle of Longview

September 29, 2011

Longshore workers in Washington state are locked in a fight for their union against filthy rich corporations. Darrin Hoop reports on the ILWU's struggle in Longview.

LONGVIEW IS a small town, the home to some 36,000 people, 130 miles south of Seattle, at the junction of the Cowlitz and Columbia Rivers, around 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Primarily a lumber town after its origins, Longview is better known now as the gateway to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument--though for Northwest aerospace enthusiasts, it's remembered as the home of Moulton Taylor, inventor of the Aerocar, the first flying car.

But over the last five months, Longview has been the site of one of the most militant labor struggles in the U.S. in decades. Since May, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 has escalated a series of actions in a two-year-plus battle to force the multinational conglomerate EGT Development to honor its contract and use ILWU labor at a new grain terminal here.

In the course of the struggle, ILWU members and their supporters have blocked trains from bringing grain into the new terminal and organized mass pickets to disrupt its operations. But the company is taking a hard line.

ILWU members block the path of a train outside Longview
ILWU members block the path of a train outside Longview

Local 21 is up against multiple Fortune Global 500 corporations, brutal police and private security, a corporate public relations firm, a professional strikebreaker and labor provocateur, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and--most disappointing of all--another union, Operating Engineers Local 701, and its scabbing operation.

The struggle brings to mind images of the labor wars of decades past. But what separates this fight from so many others that ended in defeat over the recent past is the inspiring determination and creativity of Local 21 rank-and-filers and officials. The rest of the U.S. labor movement has much to learn from its sisters and brothers in 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. The grain elevator, which is expected to employ about 50 workers, would be the first built on the West Coast in the last 25 years.

Robert McEllrath, International president of the ILWU, described the background of 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 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.

EGT started talks with Local 21 in May 2010 over the terms of a contract for ILWU members to work the terminal. 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 is underway and may not be settled until April 2012, when a non-jury trial is set to take place.

As negotiations soured, Local 21 stepped up its actions in the spring and summer. At first, the union held various informational pickets and rallies. But when EGT continued to take a hard line, the union organized the first of several mass direct actions to prevent or delay Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains from delivering grain to the terminal.

On July 13, starting around 11 p.m., more than 600 workers and supporters blocked the tracks and forced a train full of grain back to Vancouver, Wash. Then on September 7, several hundred longshore workers again blockaded trains, first in Vancouver, then later in the day in Longview. This time, cops in riot gear and equipped with tear gas and rifles carrying rubber bullets were able to clear the tracks after a four-hour standoff.

In response, around 4:30 a.m. on September 8, hundreds of ILWU members and their supporters allegedly dumped grain from train cars, cut brake lines on trains, smashed windows on a guard shack and held six security guards hostage, according to the police version of events. ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman said the claim that unionists took hostages was "a blatant, total, all-out lie."

In response to EGT's attempts to ship scab grain and to protest the police brutality in Longview, the ILWU used its monthly "stop work" meetings to shut down the entire Ports of Vancouver and Longview on September 7 and the Ports of Tacoma, Seattle and Anacortes on September 8.

These mass actions in September took place in spite of a barrage of charges from the NLRB. On August 29, the NLRB sided with management, demanding an end to what it claimed was "violent and aggressive" picketing by the ILWU.

In McEllrath's statement to longshore members, the ILWU president is 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.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton issued an injunction against the ILWU blocking trains and called on the union to refrain from "violent protests." He later found the union in contempt for violating his injunction on September 7 and 8. The union is currently allowed only eight people at any time to picket the road near the terminal.

Despite this, on September 21, ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman and nine mothers and wives of ILWU members engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by blocking a train attempting to carry wheat to the new terminal.

The cops who arrested the protesters used such brutality that one of those arrested, a 57-year old woman, suffered a torn rotator cuff. Two other Local 21 officials were arrested when they tried to come to the defense of her and the others. Cops held them down and pepper sprayed them in the eyes at point-blank range.

In response to this, on September 22, Local 21 filed a civil rights lawsuit against the police, Cowlitz County and the City of Longview. The suit is aimed at stopping a campaign that has so far resulted in around 135 arrests, and numerous cases of police brutality, surveillance and general harassment of ILWU members and officials. Two days later, about 50 women, most of them members of the ILWU Ladies Auxiliary protested the police violence.

AS IS all too often the case through labor's history, the government is siding with the titans of capitalism while the rich complain about losing money.

For more than two years, EGT has complained about a supposed extra $1 million in labor costs it would take to pay for ILWU members compared to non-longshore labor.

But this joint venture of Japan-based Itochu Corp, South Korea's STX Pan Ocean and White Plains, N.Y.-based Bunge is hardly poor. Itochu ranks 201 on Fortune's Global 500 list of the world's largest corporations, and Bunge is number 182. Bunge has operations that span five continents and 37 countries. Its profits were $2.5 billion in 2010 alone.

As much as any union in the U.S, the ILWU has stood in solidarity with other unions engaged in labor struggles and with a multitude of political struggles. The union has used its contractually allowed monthly "stop work" union meetings to shut down West Coast ports in solidarity with the movement for death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, against the World Trade Organization, and against the Iraq war.

The rest of the labor movement and its community supporters will be given a chance to return the favor on September 29. On that day in Longview, there will be a solidarity rally in support of Local 21.

In addition, the ILWU has received support against the Operating Engineers' raiding activity in the form of solidarity resolutions and other backing from Local 290 of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, the International Transport Workers Federation, the Washington State Labor Council, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.

And in maybe the most powerful act of solidarity yet, members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) staged a solidarity rally in support of ILWU Local 21 members at the Townsville Port, in front of a ship owned by STX Pan Ocean, a part owner of EGT.

The importance of this struggle is crystal clear to the ILWU. Several of the biggest corporations in the world are trying to bust the union that has operated all the major ports on the West Coast for the last 80 years. The outcome of the fight at EGT in Longview will shape upcoming coastwide contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association in 2014.

Continued solidarity, from labor and its supporters in Washington, but also nationally and internationally, will be key to winning this fight.

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