Longshore Workers Thresh Grain Shipper, Block Train
Longshore workers by the hundreds blocked a mile-long train July 14 to prevent an anti-union company from moving grain through the port of Longview, Washington. EGT Development wants to operate its new $200 million facility using non-longshore labor.
The action is the third in a series of protests by Longshore Union (ILWU) Local 21. In one case, members used a pickup truck to tear down a fence and then occupied the grain terminal, blocking EGT employees from working. About 100 union members, including leaders, were arrested for criminal trespassing. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe has suspended train traffic to the terminal.
Members of Local 21 have been joined by longshore workers from throughout the Northwest, many of whom have taken off from their jobs to join the protests. Grain elevators exist at all the Northwest ports.
“This is much bigger than Longview,” said Scott Mason, president of ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington. “It’s about organized labor and not having a Wisconsin.”
EGT started the fight by suing the Port of Longview to void the stipulation in its lease that requires EGT to hire Local 21 members. The trial is set to begin next year and could drag on for years. In the meantime, EGT has broken off negotiations with the ILWU and is operating its terminal as if it had already won the case.
At stake for 200-member Local 21 are about 50 jobs and a foot in the door for union-busters. Initially, EGT expressed interest in hiring non-union labor but instead contracted the work to a company organized by Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701, from Oregon. In a news release, IUOE expressed no aversion to raiding another union's jobs. Local officials would not comment.
But the president of the Tacoma, Washington-based IOUE local told Longview’s Daily News that the EGT terminal is out of his jurisdiction, and his local would not take other unions’ work.
Mason warned that no one should be fooled by the “ruse [EGT is] putting on, saying they got another union in there. It’s a mask to hide their ultimate goal to have no union.”
Small Port, Big Company
Though a small port, Longview is a gateway to the world for the Pacific Northwest's sizable agricultural industry. The Daily News reports that EGT is owned by a Japanese company, a Korean shipper, and St. Louis-based Bunge North America, which earned a $2.5 billion profit last year. The company says it would cost $1 million more annually to run the terminal with ILWU labor.
Besides the company’s legal obligation to hire ILWU members, union workers argue for the benefits of the longshore dispatching system, which allows members to choose which job they want to perform each day. This flexibility eases the monotony of physical labor, which, some say, saves lives in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Any breach of the union's jurisdiction could damage that system.
In the ILWU’s eyes, EGT's actions amount to a declaration of war; success for the company would create an opening for other employers to hire outside the union. Every other major grain terminal on the West Coast is under ILWU contract.
Local President Dan Coffman told reporters, “We have worked this dock for 70 years, and to have a big, rich corporation come in and say ‘We don’t want you’ is a problem.” So Local 21 is causing big problems for EGT, in an industry in which hours of delay can cost companies millions in revenue.
Asked how the ILWU decided on the militant tactics, Mason said, “Tearing a fence down to throw a scab out, that doesn't sound very militant to me. It might be militant by today’s standards, but maybe that’s because the politics of the country have changed so much.”
More actions can be expected. Mason said the ILWU will do whatever is necessary to make sure longshore jobs are preserved at all the grain elevators in the Northwest.
Legal or Not
It was an illegal job action similar to Local 21’s that created one of the only clear victories for labor in recent years. Members of the United Electrical Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago occupied their factory in December 2008. They won their legally guaranteed severance packages and inspired union activists across the country.
Similarly, EGT is bound by contract to use Longshore labor—yet Local 21 must turn to civil disobedience to protect its members' jobs.
Dockers on the East Coast have had to use aggressive action to defend their jobs, too. Longshore workers shut the mammoth New York-New Jersey port for two days last September, honoring a picket line erected by members of the Longshoremen (ILA) from Philadelphia. They brought the picket line to New York and Baltimore to protest the Del Monte fruit company’s decision to move its banana-and-pineapple importing operation to a non-ILA pier.
Of course, most employer aggression against unions, such as Governor Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, is entirely legal. The question remains whether unions can successfully use such bold tactics to resist employer attacks that have the blessing of the law.
Victories like the one at Republic and, one hopes, at EGT could show other unions how to disobey unjust labor laws. As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Maybe more unions should take a page out of civil rights movement history. Tear up Taft-Hartley and light up Landrum-Griffin. Workers protecting their jobs answer to a higher moral authority than the legislative bodies that squawk about trespassing laws.
Evan Rohar is a former casual worker at the Port of Tacoma.