We were fighting for everyone’s rights

May 30, 2012

A months-long struggle by International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 in Longview, Wash., ended in January when a multinational grain giant dropped its plans to run a scab operation under pressure from mobilizations and protest by the union and supporters.

Based in the small city of Longview, Wash., some 50 miles upriver from Portland, Ore., the workers found themselves at the center of one of the most militant labor confrontations in years. The fight began more than a year before, when the multinational grain consortium EGT, backed by corporate giant Bunge, announced it would be operating a brand-new facility without ILWU labor, through a sweetheart deal with International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701. This broke a decades-old agreement with the longshore union in Longview.

ILWU Local 21 members--backed by brothers and sisters from ILWU locals in Portland, Seattle and Tacoma--responded by blocking a trainload of scab grain in September. The police responded violently, with beatings and arrests. The employers flexed their political muscle to put pressure on Local 21 members and their families. The U.S. Coast Guard even escorted a ship to load the scab grain.

But the Longview struggle found wider support, with activists in the Occupy movement working alongside rank-and-file activists in the ILWU to build support for a community picket line to shut down the ports of Oakland, Seattle and Portland on December 2. ILWU officials publicly opposed that effort--and the solidarity campaign was marred when ILWU officials and members physically attacked Occupy activists at a January 6 meeting in Seattle.

Nevertheless, the organizing for a solidarity action to stop a scab grain shipment from the new facility continued, with ILWU President Robert McEllrath calling for support for an action in Longview. Occupy activists and other labor activists were continuing to mobilize when EGT finally dropped its opposition to having ILWU labor work at the new facility.

While the deal contains some concessions and fell short of Local 21's goal of gaining the key master console jobs in the facility's control room, it nevertheless preserved the ILWU's jurisdiction.

Local 21 President Dan Coffman spoke to Lee Sustar at the recent Labor Notes conference about the Longview struggle and its significance for the labor movement as unions try to resist the tide of concessions.

YOU PRESERVED your union jurisdiction after a long struggle. How do you characterize that settlement?

THE SETTLEMENT was a long battle. I mean, it was a war. We fought for what historically has been in our town--working grain elevators since 1927. We had an elevator that operated until 1987. In the first 13 years of my existence in the union, I worked that elevator a lot. We work the in-house jobs, we work the barges, we work the ship, and that was on port property.

Then we have a new company come in, and I'm going to call that company what it is--Bunge. They've got a couple of partners.

The thing people have to understand is Bunge came into our community thinking that they were new to the game. But they weren't new to the game. They used to have an elevator in Portland, Ore., which is upriver from where we are. So they knew the contract that we work under in the Northwest. And they wanted no part of that contract.

So what they had to do is form a consortium with some partners to change it from Bunge to XYZ--or EGT, as it may be known now--just to circumvent the Northwest grain agreement. They didn't fool us.

ILWU Local 21 members and supporters endured harsh repression in their battle against grain giant EGT
ILWU Local 21 members and supporters endured harsh repression in their battle against grain giant EGT

AFTER THE construction of the terminal, they brought in Operating Engineers Local 701 as a company union.

WHAT YOU do is you look at the players involved. T.E. Ibberson works for Bunge a lot, and constructs their elevators, wherever they may be. They're owned by Peter Kiewit, a huge construction corporation. You look at General Construction, who EGT signed a contract with. Who are they owned by? Well, they're a subsidiary of Peter Kiewit. And who is General Construction's workforce? The Operating Engineers.

So you can see how it just trickled down through, and it led to EGT hiring their workforce. Our battle wasn't really with 701, it was with EGT. But even at the top of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka knows that that the grain terminal is not their work. It has never historically been their work. It's not their jurisdiction, and as far as we were concerned, we were raided by another union.

WHEN EGT started to move the grain, you decided to put yourselves on the line in a way that's rarely happened in these last number of years. What brought people to that decision?

WHAT BROUGHT people to the decision was when they brought the first testing rail cars in. I believe it was 29 of them. They brought them into the facility at night, and we knew 701 was in there, and so they were going to start testing the facility itself--testing the dump loaders, or the rail car unloaders, and testing how they moved the grain throughout the plant.

Once we saw the door of the rail pits open up and we saw the dust coming out of there, we knew that, technically, they were doing our work. It led to an explosion on the docks at other places we work. We were working a couple of log ships at the time. Once people saw this on the dock, immediately, there was a wildcat action. Everybody went to the place, and we stormed through the gate. We basically ran the people out of that pit, and we took over that pit.

We stayed there for probably, I'm going to guess, at least four or five hours, and finally, we were escorted out after being arrested by the police, the Cowlitz County Sheriff.

AND THE next train after that was blocked?

SHORTLY THEREAFTER, they tried to bring them in there within two- to three-week periods--the first, I believe, was July 11. The next one was maybe July 25.

Another train came on September 7. We first stopped that train in Vancouver, Wash., and our International president, Bob McEllrath, was there with us. We probably stopped it there for, I'm guessing, four or five hours.

It was hot that time of year--I believe it was a 95-degree day. So Bob knew that our mass of people was melting in the sun. It was hot, so we got refreshed and then a couple hours later, we got reassembled in Longview, basically about 35 miles away, and we met that train again there.

The differences were 180 degrees. In Vancouver, the police treated us with respect. Many of them came up and told us, "Way to go, we support you, keep it up." But as soon as we were back in Longview, Wash., it was 180 degree turn. We were met by the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department and the Longview PD. They were dressed in riot gear. They were ready for battle. And they were going to do bodily harm to us.

The police are the ones who came at us. They are the ones who attacked Bob and threw him down to the ground. They arrested not only him, but a few of our other members. They also arrested our Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Labor Council president. The whole confrontation was police aggression toward us. They escalated the situation.

WHEN DID the grain find its way from the train onto the ground?

THAT WAS the next day. That was basically another wildcat. It infuriated the ILWU in the Pacific Northwest--what these police did to our International president. We reacted like anybody would react to the harassment, the assault on an International president. We took offense to it.

It sent a clear message to the world. It infuriated unions throughout the U.S. and throughout the world. It sent--and that's the only thing I thanked our police officers in our community for--the message to the world for us, "Look at what they're doing to us here."

PEOPLE PAID a price, both in terms of physical injury and the fines and prosecutions which are still ongoing.

YES. WE faced over 200 fines and citations, some of them anywhere from "delaying of a train" to trespassing and burglary.

Here's the police telling the world that we took hostages--a lie. There were so many lies put out by the propaganda machine. We weren't there to threaten anybody. We were there to protect our jobs, our jurisdiction. And a lot of the delaying of the trains was executing our constitutional right to free assembly.

THE CONFRONTATION in September took place just a few weeks before the Occupy movement took off. How did the alliance between the union and Occupy come together?

ONE THING we have to understand about the Occupy movement is that the ILWU was under very heavy constraints. We were in federal court. We were in the National Labor Relations Board's court. We had stuff put onto us where we couldn't do things--where we were going to be found in contempt and were going to be hit with huge fines.

The trouble with Occupy is, let's say you have a force of people that come into a community, but something happens. Who's going to get blamed for that? The ILWU. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place with this. The PMA [Pacific Maritime Association, the employers' group] also filed charges against us. So we had to be very careful, because we figured already that we were going to be hit with $300,000 worth of fines. Anything on top of that and we're going to be talking probably in the millions of dollars.

THERE'S SOLIDARITY, and at the same time, there are some issues about what the form of struggle will be and what the relationship will be.

WE WELCOMED the support from Occupy. I even went to Oakland to thank ILWU Local 10 for what they did for us. And I met with the teachers' federation down there that was going through their struggles, and I spoke at their conference. I visited ILWU Local 34, which is the clerks in Oakland. Then I was invited to come speak at Occupy Oakland, which I did. I just basically thanked them down there for shedding light on our plight and our battle.

THERE WAS a building sense of confrontation that lasted about two to six weeks before the settlement. What was happening?

WE CONCENTRATED mostly on what we were going to do. We didn't have any influence or control on the outside forces. We knew that Jobs with Justice was involved in it, we knew that Occupy all over the United States was involved in it. We'd heard reports and rumors that there was going to be 20,000 or maybe 30,000 people come to Longview, Wash., when the grain ship came that was escorted by the Coast Guard.

When you've got a Coast Guard escort with machine guns on Zodiac boats and big cutters alongside and helicopters in the sky, we've seen the role that Homeland Security and the Coast Guard was playing in this.

IN THIS period, though, there were solidarity meetings in Portland and Seattle where there ended up being a punch-up. What's your view of that, and how did that shape things?

WELL, I understand what the Occupy people were trying to do, and I understand the temperature at the time. But like I said, we had injunctions against the ILWU.

You know the thing that worried us is that we were stuck between a rock and a hard place with these groups. If anything went down, how are they going to fine Occupy? Who is Occupy? But they knew who the ILWU was, and the injunctions were against us. So anything that happens during any of those battles is going to come back against the union. That's what worried us.

AND THE violence that took place, what's your view on that?

AFTER SEPTEMBER 7, when Big Bob went to the ground, and some of the blocking of the trains, we've seen how the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department and the Longview Police Department geared up for us. I think the Sheriff of Cowlitz County was in over his head. He didn't know how to react, he didn't know what to do, and my gut feeling is that he was taking a lot of pointers, maybe, from the Special Response Corporation or maybe the Pinkerton outfit that EGT hired.

You know we had people dragged out of their cars, people followed, people dragged out of their homes, spotlights shined in their houses until 3 o'clock in the morning. Cop cars sitting out in front of certain residences for three or four days at a time.

I myself even had to stay in our local hall. For one-week period, I never left that hall. In fact, the one time I did, we'd go visit my wife and my child in Vancouver, which is about 40 miles away, I actually swapped vehicles with my parents. My parents were coming into Longview, and guess what, the cops followed them right into town--pulled up alongside of them and looked into the car. They saw it was my mom and dad driving it--it wasn't me--and they just veered off.

DID THIS remind you of the labor history that you'd learned, about being in a company town?

IF YOU read anything about the Teamster Rebellion--what the truckers in Minneapolis in the '30s went through--and what the coal miners of Pittston went through in 1989, and what the ILWU went through in 1934, it was the same thing. It was just 80 years later. Police brutality, the cops sticking up for the corporations.

Nothing's going to change in a capitalistic society. The police are the strong arm of the corporations.

SO YOU come to a settlement. When did you see that the company was willing to come to some kind of terms that you could deal with?

THE BIGGEST victory was that 701 was out of the elevator. We could not have imagined a ship being loaded and sailing down that river, and heading overseas to dump their cargo without a longshoreman loading that boat, let alone 701 not only loading that boat, but working inside that elevator. We got that entity out of there.

We got inside the plant, we got on the ship, and at the same time, we got them to agree to pay into our health and welfare plan...with no changes. And we also got them to agree to pay into our pension plan. That was huge.

THERE ARE concessions that you weren't happy with.

THE MANAGEMENT right clauses in there aren't good. If we have any illegal work stoppages--as deemed by an arbitrator--within a five-year period, the contract can be null and void.

WHAT LESSONS are there for the wider labor movement in this struggle?

WE'VE GOT some guys in their 80s who were longtime officers of our union. They say: "Don't get complacent. The employers are always going to come after you. They're always going to attack you. They always want from you. If you want something, you have to be willing to fight for it." And that's been instilled in us since the day I walked into that hall, from our fathers and our grandfathers.

This country has got to get a labor movement back into it. Because these corporations are making record profits. We see how the distribution of wealth in this country has shifted, and we need to fight back. We need to get this country back.

Because this country was built by labor. It wasn't built by the rich. Tax breaks for the rich, and tax breaks for the corporations, and hiding your money into offshore accounts--to me, that's treasonous. If the Citizens United [Supreme Court decision] is true, and corporations are people, then these people need to pay their fair share of taxes. And they aren't doing it.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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