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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 3, 2012, 12:19 pm

ILWU’s Militant Defense of West Coast Turf Pays Off With Longview Victory

BY Mike Elk

It appears as if the long and sometimes violent dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union and the operators of a port in Washington state is fnally coming to an end.  

On Wednesday, the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, Wash., recognized ILWU Local 21 as the sole union representing workers at the port. EGT and ILWU are expected to negotiate a contract in the coming days to settle the dispute, which would brings to an end one of the most most high-profile and bloody labor disputes in years. The settlement also stops EGT from opening the first nonunion port on the West Coast, which ILWU agressively opposed.

Last year, EGT opened a grain terminal in Longview, Wash., using a variety of nonunion labor in skilled positions and labor provided by the Operating Engineers union in less-skilled positions. The use of nonunion and non-ILWU labor at the Port of Longview resulted in a series of confrontational showdowns between protesting union members and the facility. On one occasion last July, more than 100 union members were arrested for breaking down a fence and invading the grain terminal in an effort to shut it down.

Later, hundreds of ILWU members blocked railroad tracks to prevent goods from moving;  on another occasion unionists vandalized trains carrying grain to the port. Throughout the confrontations, more than 125 protesters were arrested.

The action by the ILWU to keep the Longview EGT terminal within their jurisdiction inspired solidarity actions up and down the West Coast. Workers at the Port of Tacoma and Vancouver went out on wildcat strikes. And workers at all ports throughout the West Coast shut down the ports for 15 minutes in order to protest the decision. Some Occupy activists even attempted to shut down all ports on the West Coast on December 12.

In recent weeks, there was increasing tension as EGT was preparing to sends its first ship out of the Longview Harbor. ILWU and Occupy activists were preparing caravans to transport activist up and down the West Coast to take action if EGT attempted to load a ship without the ILWU. There was even talk that some might try to use boats to block a ship from getting out of the port. 

In response, the Coast Guard had recently sent out notice saying it was going to escort ships and patrol the areas to prevent against protesters by ILWU members or their supporters. The deal reached yesterday averts such a showdown.

Not wanting a big showdown like previous showdowns, Washington Gov. Christina Gregoire got the two sides to sit down and negotiate a deal. Greogorie was able to put pressure on EGT to negotiate with the ILWU since her office had played a role in securing tax credits necessary.  

“I asked EGT and ILWU to come together in a good faith effort to overcome their differences,” Gregoire said. “Both parties should be commended for their willingness to work together and compromise. This framework reflects considerable effort to put the interests of the Longview community and the entire Columbia River basin first. I am confident an agreement can be reached that will satisfy both parties and allow the new grain terminal to become fully operational.”

Rarely do Democratic politicians put pressure on companies to settle labor disputes, but when they do, it can produce significant results for unions. High-profile New York politicians recently did just that while helping Cablevision workers to unionize.

“This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community,” said ILWU President Robert McEllrath. “I want to thank Governor Gregoire for her leadership in working with both parties to find common ground. The ILWU has eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest, and we look forward to the opportunity to develop a positive working relationship with EGT.”

After agreeing to recognize ILWU Local 21 as the bargaining representative of the union, EGT has signaled that it would move quickly to negotiate a contract with the union within a few days. Both sides appeared to be willing to settle a contract quickly.

"EGT's recognition of ILWU Local 21 as the bargaining representative for workers at its facility in Longview is an important step forward, and we are committed to developing a longterm relationship with EGT—one that benefits the community, establishes good local union jobs for years to come and contributes to the stability of the Pacific Northwest grain export industry," McEllrath said.

EGT representatives could not be immediately reached for comment.

While the settlement and contract negotiations between EGT will cover working conditions of the workers involved, there is no word yet on whether the multiple criminal charges faced by union members will be dropped as part of the settlement. Already, Cowlitz County has dropped criminal trespassing charges against ILWU members. However, the ILWU still faces $300,000 in fines for disobeying an injunction against illegal picketing issued by a federal judge.

But the fines ILWU faces for its aggressive tactics against EGT seem like a small cost for the union to pay to block the opening of the West Coast's first nonunion port. Through its militancy, the ILWU will continue to represent all workers along the entire West Coast.

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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