In an ongoing struggle that has lasted for more than a year in Washington state, about 500 union longshoremen stormed the Port of Longview Sept. 7, cut brake lines on a train and dumped grain at the EGT terminal. Longshoremen in Tacoma and Seattle engaged in wildcat strikes the next day.
These actions follow months of militant struggle, as longshoremen have blocked trains outside the new EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview.
As hundreds blocked the train, 38 were arrested and riot-equipped police beat and pepper-sprayed protesters. Among those present at the demonstration was International Longshore and Warehouse Union International President Robert McEllrath.
What issues are behind this intense fight-back struggle?
ILWU Local 21 has worked the Port of Longview for over 70 years, and is the only union working grain in the region. On Sept. 15, the ILWU signed an agreement with the Pacific Northwest Grain Elevator Operators, which is made up of the operators of six Northwest grain export terminals located in Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash., and in Portland, Ore. EGT is not included in this agreement.
Based on their experience, the ILWU has developed important safety procedures related to working with grain. Jennifer Sargent of ILWU said, “Grain silos are very, very dangerous places to work. It’s important to have good safety procedures. There are falls, there are explosions, there are engulfments—people can essentially suffocate in the grain.”
That all changed once EGT Development, a multinational joint venture, entered a contractual agreement with the Port of Longview. Under the agreement, EGT secured a favorable lease and taxpayer subsidies in exchange for building a grain terminal at the port. The company chose to ignore the union labor contract between the port and ILWU 21 and attempted to use non-union labor at the grain terminal. This decision led to a series of protests, including a June 3 rally of more than 1,000 regional union workers and supporters outside of EGT’s headquarters in Portland, Ore. A July 11 protest held on EGT property resulted in over 100 arrests.
Given that the EGT terminal represents a comparatively modest 50 jobs, ILWU 21 could have abandoned the struggle. In this time of “shared sacrifice,” workers and unions across the nation are enjoined to do just that; to submit, to sacrifice and to be grateful for the scraps that the bosses condescend to provide to us.
Rather, ILWU 21 chose to sustain and amplify the struggle, with over 100 protesters blocking access to EGT property from July 22 to July 25, resulting in the temporary closure of the grain terminal. Only police escorts for scab employees permitted EGT to resume operations.
The company then announced that it would hire a unionized subcontractor to run the terminal. General Construction Co., a subsidiary of Kiewit, would operate the terminal with union members from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701 from nearby Portland, Ore. The move was condemned by both the Oregon AFL-CIO and the Washington State Labor Council as an attempt to pit union members against each other.
On Sept. 1, a federal judge issued a temporary, 10-day restraining order prohibiting ILWU 21 from effective picketing of the EGT terminal. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton issued a second injunction on Sept. 8, threatening to hold the union in civil contempt for continuing to militantly defend their jobs.
Law enforcement: agents of EGT
Cowlitz county law enforcement, acting in the interests of EGT, launched a media campaign that made headlines, claiming that the ILWU “rushed” the police, threw objects and held security and law enforcement “hostage” the night the grain was spilled. In a letter, Leal Sundet, Coast Committeeman of the ILWU Coast Longshore Division, said to Sheriff Mark Nelson, “Your sensationalized media campaign to mischaracterize union members as lawless criminal aggressor thugs is unprofessional, unwarranted, and inflammatory.”
Since the events of Sept. 7, local Cowlitz county law enforcement has been arresting individual members of the ILWU who were identified as having stood on the railroad tracks. Meanwhile, according to Sundet’s letter, local law enforcement has declined to pursue an individual who was “caught on video purposefully driving through and striking with his vehicle, peaceful picketers as he entered EGT’s Longview facility.”
Sundet further stated: “The driver struck picketers, failed to render aid, and left the scene of the accident. One picketer was taken to the hospital as a result. Cowlitz County officials, who reviewed the video, to date have declined to prosecute the driver, instead arresting a picketer who allegedly dented another vehicle with his knee. He was immediately charged with a felony.”
In response to sensationalized arrests of union members, some 200 members of ILWU attempted to turn themselves in en masse at the Cowlitz County Hall of Justice in Kelso Sept. 16. “We’re here. If you want us, come and get us,” shouted ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman. (Longshore Shipping News.) Local law enforcement did nothing, and the ILWU members left the area after waiting for 30 minutes.
ILWU shows the way
The ILWU has a long and proud history of militant and progressive struggle. While always fierce in defense of their rights as workers, the ILWU has also gone beyond their own immediate self-interest to struggle on behalf of the working class as a whole. For instance, in 1983, longshoremen in the San Francisco Bay Area refused to unload cargo from South Africa in support of the boycott against apartheid. In 2008, ILWU longshoremen held a one-day strike against the Iraq War.
However, there is no reason why the ILWU should be unique among workers in the United States.
During the course of this depression, it has become even more clear that workers in the United States are under attack. The endless catalog of corporate mergers, layoffs, consolidations and assaults on organized labor expose the true nature of class relations. These events, combined with chronic high unemployment and a record number of people in poverty, are smashing the idea that so-called “middle class” workers are anything other than a relatively privileged sector whose privileges can be revoked in order to increase profit.
The struggles of the ILWU in Longview point to the comprehensive measures needed to bring us true freedom. We commend ILWU 21 for their uncompromising stand against EGT’s union-busting and demand that all criminal charges against ILWU 21 union members and supporters be dismissed immediately.