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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 18, 2011, 2:24 pm

Longshoremen Get Old-School With Trespassing and Train Blockage

BY Mike Elk

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Last Monday, more than 100 union longshoremen were arrested after they tore down a fence and entered a new terminal at the Port of Longview in Washington state to protest its nonunion status. Then, early Thursday morning, hundreds of people—members of International Longshore and Warehouse Unions Local 21—stormed the facility in order to stop a mile-long freight train from delivering grain and to protest the use of nonunion labor at the port.

Union members are upset that the new grain terminal, operated by EGT, will not have to employ union workers. EGT officials claim that since they are leasing the newly built terminal, they do not have to abide by the master union contract that governs the entire port. The newly opened grain terminal would create 50 nonunion jobs in a port that previously had no nonunion jobs, creating a dangerous precedent (from unionized workers' perspective) that could lead to more unionbusting in the port.

“We have had a union contract with Port of Longview for almost 80 years. Now EGT comes in to build new elevators, doesn't use any local labor and even went as far to use laborers from Guatemala,” says ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman. “EGT says they are one hundred percent community, but they have hardly used any community in the whole process and intend to open this terminal using nonunion labor.”

The storming of the port terminal happened spontaneously during the protest of nonunion labor and was not planned by the leadership of the union, Coffman said. However, the port invasion represents the type of anger many rank and file union members feel about what is happening across the country in the assault on union employees.

“We see labor being attacked all over this country, with it starting in Wisconsin and spreading all over the U.S. Now it is coming to the west coast and to Longview Washington. ILWU is not going to stand for this,” Coffman said. “We are going to do whatever we can to take protect our jobs.” Coffman would not comment on whether that might mean more direct action like last Thursday’s train blockage.

EGT did not respond to request for comment from In These Times.

The International Longshoreman and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) has a long history of direct action and militancy. The last general strike in America, which occurred in San Francisco in 1934, was sparked by a longshoreman’s labor dispute. On May 1, 2008, longshoreman at 29 ports on the west coast held on a one-day strike in order to protest the War in Iraq.

ILWU has traditionally engaged in solidarity actions on the West Coast in order to support other unions. As a union, the ILWU has hesitated to use the power of the strike and work slowdowns to economically affect the bottom line and business operations of their employers.

As a result of the Longview terminal being shut down because of the workers' invasion, a grain train meant for the port was diverted to another port in Vancouver. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad spokesman Gus Melonas told the AP that the port shutdown “has prompted BNSF to indefinitely suspend train traffic to the grain terminal.”

The terminal invasion has cost the port operator money. That means the port operators may be more likely to sit down and negotiate with ILWU than if the union had just engaged in a modern day picket line and protests, which  generally are moral witness events aimed at garnering media attention and political support, rather than effective picket lines that shut down corporations in the past.

The power to hurt corporations economically through the strike has traditionally been workers' biggest weapon used against corporations. The endgame at the Port of Longview is unclear, but as the labor movement debates how to revive itself, it's a case study worth watching.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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