West Coast longshore workers fight for their jobs

For the past five months the small town of Longview, Wash., has been the scene of one of the most militant labor battles in recent history. International grain exporter EGT, a Fortune 500 company, has attempted to open a new $200 million terminal on space leased from the port of Longview. EGT is attempting to operate the new facility without employing ILWU Local 21 longshore workers, despite contract language that all work done on port property is under the jurisdiction of the ILWU.

All other grain operations at West Coast ports are operated with ILWU members. EGT is attempting to break this gain of the longshore workers, and in doing so undermine the strength of the union. Unfortunately, EGT has gotten support from one labor union in efforts to break the longshore workers’ union.
Operating Engineers Local 701, in a despicable move, went around the back of the longshore workers and signed an agreement with EGT that they would represent the new grain operation. The crooked bureaucrats in charge of that local, which was expelled from building trades councils for raiding activity, are assisting the bosses’ attempts to break the ILWU in exchange for the right to collect dues at one shop. Unions across the country have denounced the actions of Local 701, and ILWU has filed raiding charges with the AFL-CIO.
ILWU president Robert McEllrath sent a letter to the membership in September explaining the struggle in Longview: “ILWU longshoremen work at every grain export facility in the Pacific Northwest —Seattle, Tacoma, Aberdeen, Portland, Vancouver, and Longview. EGT Development has built a $200 million facility on the same site as a previous grain facility where longshoremen worked. That site is directly on Port of Longview property. 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—an assault that could fundamentally change the dynamics of the relationship within the grain industry as a whole. It is critical to the Longshore Division that this does not happen.”
In May the longshore union begin negations with EGT on terms for a contract at the grain facility. The company wanted the workers to agree to 12-hour shifts with no overtime. As negotiations stalled, the union began organizing informational picket lines. In July a picket line of 600 longshoremen blocked trains full of grain from leaving the EGT plant. Police in riot gear fired tear gas at the picket line to break it up.
In August, the NLRB, in typical fashion, ordered the longshore workers to end their “violent” demonstrations at EGT. This was followed by an injunction from a federal judge that limited picket lines at EGT to eight members at a time.
Longshore rank and file, undeterred by the pro-boss courts, continued picket lines. On Sept. 8, hundreds of longshore workers from across the West Coast mobilized in Longview for a picket line. Allegedly, train cars of grain were dumped, brake lines cut, a guard shack’s windows were broken, and six security guards were held hostage. Local 21 denies that the group took any hostages.  
In response, local police began arresting members of Local 21, charging them with misdemeanor trespassing charges. Over 10 days, 35 members were picked up at their homes or on the street. Evan Rohar reported in a Labor Notes article, “‘They’re rounding us up like we’re murderers,’ said Dan Coffman, president of the Longview local. Five police dragged one union official out of his car by his hair, roughed him up, and slammed him into the back of a squad car. Another member was hauled away while caring for his children, two and seven years old, leaving them to fend for themselves in an empty house. Yet another, a part-time minister, was arrested by police wielding assault rifles.”
To avoid further dangerous situations with gun-toting sheriffs, ILWU attorneys contacted the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Dept. and offered the entire membership of Local 21 to be arrested. All 200 members marched silently to the courthouse from the union hall. The Sheriff’s Dept. refused to arrest all members, though later they arrested the Local 21 vice-president.
Local 21 members have continued to fight despite police harassment and brutality. On Sept. 21, three Local 21 officers, including local president Dan Coffman and nine members of the ILWU women’s auxiliary, were arrested for blocking a train from entering the EGT plant.   
Media reports have focused on “violent” strikers. In reality, ILWU members and their supporters have shown tremendous restraint in the face of constant provocations from EGT, the police, and private security guards hired by the company. One EGT employee ran his car into a picket line and was never arrested or ticketed by police. The media also repeated the lie from police that security guards were held hostage during the Sept. 8 action.
In September, picketers caught on camera police holding an ILWU member by the throat. The Local 21 president said, “Who’s telling the truth here? We have a city government here that’s basically EGT’s security force. They’re beating up people that have lived in this community their entire lives.”
On Sept. 30, the courts once again acted on behalf of the bosses, fining the union $250,000 for the “vandalism and other illegal activity.” The court also set fines of $2500 for individuals who trespass on rail tracks or break the law in future protests. The fine will be $5000 for union officers.
The police and courts have made it clear whose side they are on. It’s up to the rest of the labor movement to stand on the side of the longshore workers in this critical labor battle.
In order to be victorious, the ILWU will have to continue stopping EGT operations in Longview. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations and other labor bodies should step up and pledge to pay all fines levied against the ILWU. They should also mobilize members from across the country to form picket lines in the tens of thousands instead of a few hundred. The ILWU, with the support of the entire labor movement, could shut down the whole port, and every port on the West Coast by extending picket lines. 
The ILWU has one of the most militant histories of any U.S. labor union. This union once again is giving workers an example of the kind of trade-union militancy that can win labor battles. The mass mobilizations earlier this year in Madison, Wis., showed labor’s potential to mobilize and gain public support for a fightback. Unfortunately, that struggle was eventually lost, as labor leaders shifted the tactics from mobilization to electing Democrats and legal challenges. In the end, Wisconsin public workers lost almost all of their bargaining rights.
Longshore workers in Longview have no intention of losing in this battle. A popular t-shirt worn by picketers reads, “No Wisconsin Here.” It’s up to the entire labor movement to stand with Local 21 and ensure that their fight is won.
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and first appeared in the October 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.