Labor war in Longview

November 30, 2011

The small city of Longview in southwestern Washington state is currently ground zero for one of the most militant U.S. labor struggles in decades.

Since May, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 has been escalating the fight in a two-year-plus battle to force the multinational conglomerate EGT Development to honor its contract and use ILWU labor at a new $200 million grain terminal in Longview. This is the first new terminal built on the West Coast in the last 25 years.

In the course of the battle in Longview, ILWU members and their supporters have blocked trains from bringing grain to the terminal and organized mass pickets to disrupt its operations. But the company is taking a hard line. Local 21 is up against multiple global corporations, police and private security, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and another union--Operating Engineers Local 701, which is providing scab labor.

Now, after a series of test runs, EGT is planning to bring in its first ship in mid-December. Separately, the Occupy movement--whose call for a general strike and day of action in Oakland, Calif., on November 2 in protest of vicious police violence shut down that city's massive port--is calling for protests at ports up and down the West Coast on December 12 in defense of the movement and longshore unionists. The ILWU has not endorsed this call.

The Longview struggle is a crucial test for labor and the wider working-class movement. In late November, Darrin Hoop interviewed Local 21 President Dan Coffman and Local 21 Vice President Jake Whiteside. In this excerpt, they talk about the background and significance of this modern-day labor war--for workers in Washington state and around the country.

COULD YOU tell us how this struggle began?

Dan: It would have been early 2009. When we heard about this elevator being constructed in our community, there were a lot of high expectations. If you look at the paper here from November 2009, it talks about how this elevator is going to create 50 new longshore jobs. The new $200 million project was going to put construction people in this community back to work, and this is when our unemployment rate was pushing right around 15 percent.

As soon as ground construction started with the building of this thing, people realized that local labor was not getting any of this action. What we found out is that Bunge was bringing in every non-union type of company to do this project. The high expectations were soon evaporating right in front of our eyes.

At the same time, the ILWU always felt confident, because we have a working agreement with the port that has been in existence for 70-plus years. We felt confident that we were going to sit down and get an agreement with Bunge.

ILWU members in Longview have confronted grain shipments headed for the new EGT terminal
ILWU members in Longview have confronted grain shipments headed for the new EGT terminal

YOU MENTIONED Bunge--that's the main one of the three corporations that make up EGT, right? The others are Itochu, based in Japan, and STX Pan Ocean, based in South Korea.

Dan: In negotiations, Bunge talked about how it had planned this for five years prior. The terminal is EGT, but if you look at it, the 51 percent controlling partner is Bunge North America, based in New York state. We negotiated for close to 14 months, and we were negotiating throughout the whole thing with Bunge. You never saw an Itochu official at the table. You never saw an STX Pan Ocean person at the table.

Bunge is part of what we call the grain cartel, which is the equivalent of the oil cartel. There's a handful of players in the grain cartel, and Bunge is one of them--along with Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Louis Dreyfus, Gavalon. Actually, if you look at it, they're probably more powerful than the oil cartel, because people have to eat, and they know that.

Itochu is a logistics firm out of Japan that has a lot of trucking and shipping interests. Then the shipping lines company they needed to haul their product was Pan Ocean. What they did was triangulate their corporations to meet all their needs, and it became a partnership.

WHY DID they pick Longview?

Dan: We're a small port. I think they probably thought that being such a small port, they could do what they've done throughout the whole world--they could come in and micromanage not only us, but the community as a whole.

Jake: I think one of the main things about Longview is the geographical location. It's the first place you come to on the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. We're set up with a rail system. I-5 is right there. None of that is a coincidence. It was definitely orchestrated, almost brilliantly.

WHAT WERE the key issues during negotiations?

Dan: The two sticking points were straight-time pay and who was in the master console room. They wanted two 12-hour shifts for a 24-hour period. And during that 12 hours a day, they didn't want any of that to be overtime. It was going to be straight time only.

The other big sticking point was that, in a grain elevator, they have what they call the master console. He controls the flow of grain throughout that facility. Bunge didn't want any union member in that control room. We told them we don't care if you have 50 supervisors in there, there needs to be one longshoreman. We don't take orders from a supervisor. We needed that buffer between management and labor.

In the beginning, they offered us a total of three jobs in the whole facility. We finally got them to up that to four when we asked for a lead man or a general foreman. On top of that, there'd be a need for two millwrights and one electrician, for a total of seven jobs.

We started our negotiations on January 20, 2010 in Portland, Ore. We broke off negotiations, I believe, at the end of February of 2011. During our negotiations, they weren't willing to budge on one thing. I didn't call them negotiations--I called them dictations--dictations by three giant conglomerates that wanted it all their way.

WHAT IS the significance of this new terminal?

Dan: This new elevator is going to pour 40 percent faster than the last one that was built on the West Coast and have about a 30 to 40 percent decrease in the labor needed to operate this facility.

If you can imagine a Panamax ship being loaded in about a 24-hour period, that's basically unheard of. You're talking 50,000 to 60,000 metric tons of whatever product being loaded in over a 24-hour or less period. That's huge volumes at super-fast speeds. These people are recreating the playing field for the grain industry.

This new elevator is going to meet their needs logistically to supply them with an easier route to get their product to Southeast Asia and Japan. They had to set up an elevator on the West Coast to achieve that.

ON FORTUNE'S Global 500 list of the world's largest corporations, Bunge is number 182. It has operations that span five continents and 37 countries. So it's not hurting for money, is it?

Dan: They made $2.5 billion in profits here in the U.S. last year. On top of that, according to Bloomberg Businessweek in an article from May 4, 2010, the U.S. government paid out $15.4 billion in grain subsidies the previous year. Out of that, 75 percent of the money went to three companies, Bunge being one of them.

Here in the U.S., they talk about entitlement programs? Let's look at the entitlement programs for grain corporations such as Bunge.

CAN YOU talk about the militarization of the city and the police harassment your members have faced?

Dan: We have been nonviolent from the get-go. Every confrontation we had was when the police force came at us. That's when things got out of control.

We had a Labor Relations Committee member who was dragged out of his car by five police. One of our ladies was dragged out of her house and roughed up. One of our members who is a minister at a church was met at his front door by police officers holding an AK-47.

Another member of ours who is a Sunday school teacher was so humiliated by the confrontations that had taken place that he had to resign his position. I've known this guy for 35 years, and I've never known him to say one cuss word, good people. Our vice president was chased down at his church, picking his kids up. Night lights shined into people's houses until 3 a.m. And for what?

YOU MEAN like flashlights?

Dan: No, we're talking high-beam spotlights. The cops would pull a car up and shine a light into the upstairs bedroom until 3 a.m. We had numerous members with two cop cars sitting out in front of their houses, just waiting for them to either come or leave.

This kind of behavior is just uncalled for. They were tracking us down like we're criminals or felons or something--it's unheard of. But once we filed the recall charges against the sheriff because of this abuse, it seemed like overnight, these tactics changed.

IN THE occupy movement, there's been a discussion about the role of police and whether they're part of the 99 percent or not? What's your opinion on that?

Dan: They want to claim they're in a union, which they probably are. But how does one union do this brutality to another group of union people. Or non-union people, for that matter--to anyone that works for a living?

To me, the question is who they're protecting. They're protecting the rich who wrote the rules and the laws of this country. They're protecting the interests of corporations, and those corporations are here to do one thing: make as much money as possible and try to keep working people down as much as possible. They work together.

WHAT DO you think about the role the National Labor Relations Board has played in your struggle?

Dan: I think the perception across the nation is that the NLRB is there for labor. It's not. It's there for corporations, employers and the rich people.

EGT filed charges against us, and they hired a Pinkerton firm. Pinkertons have been around a long time, and we all know who they work for. They work for the corporations or the rich people. They're there to try to create as many accusations as possible so they can run to the NLRB and file charges against us. They're throwing so much mud against the wall in the hopes that maybe two or three or four of them might stick.

Their ultimate goal is to get an injunction against the union so the employers can operate without any resistance whatsoever.

WHAT SORT of fines or charges have been levied and what are the terms of the injunctions?

Dan: One thing the federal judge in Tacoma has done for us is he's not taken away our ability to maintain our pickets. He has said that we can be there. Basically, the numbers were agreed to between the port and the union, with lots of pressure from the sheriff's department to limit our numbers. It started out at 16, and then was revised down to 8 and we've maintained those numbers.

As far as our penalties and fines, we're probably at $250,000 for the first-time offenses, and I think the judge knocked that down to $230,000. And for the day [September 21] we peacefully protested on the tracks, I think we were hit for another $65,000 there.

As far as penalties for our membership, we have about 75 members who have faced some kind of citation or fine. I think it's a little over 220 citations issued to my union members. Some were arrests, and some were just tickets through the mail. The majority are for trespassing or for delaying a train or blocking a train.

Then we have about five people who are facing more serious charges such as assault. Those are very questionable. There's a famous picture of the police with one of our members in a chokehold around his neck--that kid got an assault charge. I guess because his neck was in front of the police officer's hand.

IT'S BEEN a long time since we've seen mass direct action in a U.S. labor dispute on the scale we've seen here--where you had several hundred workers blocking railroad tracks, for example. How did this happen and why it was important?

Dan: What happened is what we call a wildcat strike that was driven by the rank-and-file members. And it wasn't only the ILWU out there on those tracks. We had a lot of members in other unions in our community who were standing there shoulder to shoulder with us.

We've been known as a union town for many years. The people of this community know what union jobs, union wages and union benefits do for a community. They make for a better community. When you start taking away these things, you can see how a community starts eroding.

A lot of people were there the very first night. We probably had around 700 people--students, children, business leaders and other unions there.

It was a wildcat brought on by members of a lot of different unions. The union people and the people of this community know that we need to stick together, and they can see what these big corporations do when they come into a small community. They divide it. They tear it up. Our community has never seen unrest like this in its existence.

Jake: We never felt it was morally wrong to go down and stand on railroad tracks in solidarity with a bunch of people who believe in the same thing. The laws are written against that.

Dan talked about this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from when he was in the Birmingham jail--that there are two kinds of laws. There are just laws and unjust laws. And we have a moral responsibility to fight the unjust laws. We don't have any weapons. We were just standing on railroad tracks. They came down with their guns. They brought the fight. We're not there to attack anybody.

WHAT KIND of connections do you see between the movement here and the national Occupy movement? Would you say that you are part of the 99 percent?

Dan: We are most definitely part of the 99 percent. You can see the downturn in union membership in this country. When this country was strong, union membership was up. People in this country have been footing the bill for the past 30 years. We bailed out Wall Street, and this last bailout was the biggest heist in human history.

Meanwhile, you've got people in this country fighting for their constitutional right to free assembly. You've got students sitting down peacefully on college campuses and getting pepper-sprayed.

There are members of our union with over 220 citations written up on us, and for what? Basically for our right to free assembly, for peaceful protest, for sticking up for our jobs in what we believe is our work jurisdiction, and for fighting for our livelihood. But yet you can have Wall Street bankers ripping us off for trillions of dollars, and they walk down the street scot-free.

We're part of labor--we're part of everybody who works for a living. And as far as I'm concerned, this Occupy movement that's happening needed to happen a long time ago. I think people are finally starting to wake up. People are starting to say, "You know what, we're fed up with this."

SO WHAT'S the next step in your struggle?

Dan: I think there are two more steps. There's going to be a tugboat with barges coming to be unloaded. That's step number one. Step number two is going to be when they bring a ship, and they're going to try to load that ship and send it on its way. They've got about seven-unit trains in there now, and there's a day coming when that ship is going to be there. Whenever that is--two, three weeks, a month from now, whenever--we'll be ready to take on that battle.

All I know is that the ILWU looks at loading a ship or unloading a barge or whatever as being ILWU jurisdiction. In our port, that's been true since 1927. the northwest grain agreement was enacted in 1934, back when our big struggle took place.

So if they plan on bringing in that barge and that ship without us being there, there's going to be problems. They know it, we know it, the police know it, the coast guard knows it.

But when you're dealing with very rich people and very rich corporations, they think they can come into our community and do whatever they want. They're going to have to think again because the ILWU is not going away in this battle. Never. We will fight until the bitter end.

DO YOU want other people to come to Longview to support you when this happens?

Dan: We have been approached by every union under the sun, and one thing that they always tell us is: whatever you need, call us, and we'll be there. This is what brotherhood does. This is what union people do. Everyone is together in this thing, and everybody has each other's back.

So if that day comes where we do need help and that call goes out, I expect to see a lot of union people coming out to do whatever they can to help us in our struggle.

DO YOU support the idea of people setting up solidarity committees to help you or a national speaking tour to build solidarity with Local 21?

Dan: I think there needs to be a rebirth of the labor movement in this country. It seems like labor has always led the way. I don't care if you're union or non-union, anybody who works for a living--we have to stick together in this thing.

I think we need to use any and all tools available in how we get to that end goal. Because if labor doesn't battle the corporations and the rich, who's going to? It has to be collective. As I said, the union is for the benefit of the whole.

Anytime you can share union solidarity with other people, I think people want to hear that. I know that the ILWU seems to always be at the forefront of educating workers and being seen as a bright light for labor. We've always had that leadership role. Any time you can go around and educate people--communicate what the struggle is and what the solutions may be--I think it's a good thing.

ARE THERE any key lessons you all have learned that you think would be valuable for labor elsewhere to learn?

Dan: I think it's been taught throughout history that there's strength in numbers and in doing something together--with all your membership and all the other locals of the ILWU up and down the West Coast, so we're all unified in this fight, and we all have our backs, whether it's the locals out of LA or San Francisco, Alaska or Canada, or wherever they may be.

There are two major places that make us very strong. One is our hiring hall. This is a place that's ours. This is a place where we gather, where we come to get our job, and that's very important. The second important thing to the ILWU is that we have a West Coast contract that's in effect from Alaska to San Diego. We all work under the same contract. That's very important, and it makes us strong, and the employers know this.

WHY IS this struggle important for labor?

Dan: It's important to us because we've had a long history of working grain elevators, especially in the Pacific Northwest. We operate every export facility on the West Coast. The northwest is where the majority of the grain elevators are located. We view this as the beginning of a chipping away of what we've accomplished historically--basically, an attempt by corporations to try to break the strength of the ILWU.

Globally, the ILWU represents all workers, all over the world. It's more evident when you get outside of the United States how the ILWU is looked upon. We're looked at as a very strong union and a strong voice for working people, and we need to continue that.

We were founded on the principles that we fight for what we believe in. That's what's going on today here in Longview.

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