Longview, Washington: “The ILWU Cannot Lose This Fight”

Counterpunch, January 10, 2012

The Looming Showdown in Longview

by BEN SCHREINER

The long-simmering dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the international consortium EGT Development transpiring in Longview, Washington looks to be coming to a head.

September 2011 protest at Longview Poert

In a January 3 letter addressed to his members, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath disclosed that EGT will soon attempt to commence operations at its new $200 million grain terminal located at the Port of Longview.  As McEllrath wrote, “We believe that at some point this month a vessel will call at the EGT facility in Longview, Washington…Prepare to take action when the EGT vessel arrives.”

The Struggle and Its Stakes

At the heart of the Longview dispute has been EGT’s refusal to hire longshoremen from ILWU Local 21 to work its grain terminal at the Port of Longview. The publicly owned port—as with all West Coast public port docks—has been worked exclusively by the ILWU for decades.

Dismissing this hard-won jurisdiction, EGT chose to break off negotiations with the ILWU last year and contract with a third party employing labor from International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 701.  The ILWU argues that this is in direct violation of EGT’s lease agreement with the Port of Longview, which explicitly stipulates all port work is to indeed be done by the ILWU.

For its part, IUOE Local 701 has been widely condemned within the Northwest labor community, with many accusing the local of conspiring with EGT to break the ILWU.  Both the Washington and Oregon state AFL-CIO bodies, along with numerous other unions, have already passed resolutions condemning Local 701.  The July resolution passed by the Oregon AFL-CIO described 701’s actions at the EGT terminal as “scab labor.”

The national AFL-CIO, on the other hand, has remained conspicuously muted on the dispute.  No mention of the ILWU’s struggle in Longview can be found on the federation’s website or blog.  In fact, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has referred to the entire matter as a mere “jurisdictional dispute.”

Yet despite the AFL’s seeming indifference, the outcome of the struggle couldn’t have greater stakes.  As Kyle Mackey, Secretary/Treasurer of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council (the umbrella labor body for the Longview area), argues, “If EGT succeeds, they will have essentially broken the ILWU.”  As he explains:

First, they will set a precedent that work on public port docks is no longer automatically longshore jurisdiction. Then within less than a year, when the northwest grain handlers’ agreement is set to be negotiated, all the other grain elevators will seek to either go non-ILWU or to match the eroded standard EGT creates. Shortly thereafter, in 2014, the ILWU will negotiate its master contract with the Pacific Maritime Association. If they lose, you can bet the PMA will take notice and hit hard.

In the midst of a nationwide attack on organized labor and the right to collectively bargain, the defeat of the powerful ILWU would also be sure to have consequences reaching far beyond the docks.

The Call for Solidarity

Responding to the intensifying situation, the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Central Labor Council on January 2 passed a resolution calling for solidarity action to stop the EGT vessel from being loaded.  The resolution read in part:

Be it Resolved: That this Council call out to friends of labor and the “99 percent” everywhere to come to the aid of ILWU Local 21, and to support them in any way possible in their fight against multinational conglomerate EGT. And,

Be it further Resolved: That this Council request that anyone willing to participate in a community and labor protest in Longview, Washington, of the first EGT grain ship do so when called upon by this body.

Accordingly, planning for a regional solidarity caravan to shuttle ILWU rank-and-file and other supporters to Longview on word of the EGT vessel’s arrival is already underway.  With the support of the San Francisco Labor Council, ILWU Local 10, for one, has already pledged funds for a bus to ferry rank-and-file picketers up to Longview once given the word.

The Northwest Occupy movement, meanwhile, has also begun to mobilize.  On December 19, Occupy Longview issued a call for Occupy activists to converge on the port to blockade the loading of any vessel at EGT’s terminal.  As Occupy Longview stated, “We are calling out to all occupies, from New York City down to Florida, all the way through to the West Coast, to join us in solidarity…We ask that tens of thousands travel to Longview to join us and make this action the central action for January 2012.”

Occupy and the ILWU

The inclusion and participation of outside activists in the ILWU’s Longview struggle—such as those from the Occupy movement—has not been without its share of controversy.  As was widely publicized, the ILWU leadership refrained from embracing the West Coast Port Shutdown in December, which the Occupy movement had called in part to show solidarity with the ILWU in the struggle against EGT.  In fact, the Occupy-led port shutdown led a few unionist and other observers to question the merits and rational behind an action conducted without much in the way of ILWU input and participation.

Occupy activist, though, maintained that they did indeed have rank-and-file support for the action.  Moreover, they argued that the antagonistic statements coming from the ILWU leadership regarding the port shutdown were merely for legal cover.  (Local 21, for instance, already faces upwards of $300,000 in fines due to unfair labor practice charges accrued from its ongoing struggle.)

Regardless, the matter of independent action conducted in solidarity with, or in the name of, the ILWU remains an issue.  As President McEllrath cautioned in his January 3 letter, “Any showing of support for Local 21 at the time that a vessel calls at the EGT facility must be measured to ensure that the West Coast ports have sufficient manpower so as not to impact cargo movement for PMA member companies. A call for a protest of EGT is not a call for a shutdown of West Coast ports and must not result in one.”

Facing a Stacked Deck

The dictate to limit any ILWU action to EGT in Longview stems from the severe restrictions American labor law places on unions.  As McEllrath notes in his letter to members, “Locals need to be aware of the narrow path that we must cut through a federal labor law (the Taft-Hartley Act) that criminalizes worker solidarity, outlaws labor’s most effective tools, and protects commerce while severely restricting unions.”

Of course in addition to repressive labor laws, a key challenge facing any attempt to effectively blockade EGT’s terminal from beginning operations will be the expected heavy-handed police presence.  To date, at least 75 out of the 200 Local 21 members have already faced arrest, citation, fines, or both. (Little surprise, then, to learn that EGT has made contributions to local police and fire bureaus.)

But as for what to expect once EGT seeks to load a grain barge later this month, McEllrath warns, “We have been told that this vessel will be escorted by armed United States Coast Guard, including the use of small vessels and helicopters, from the mouth of the Columbia River to the EGT facility and that the facility itself will be protected by a full complement of local law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions.”

But even facing such a stacked deck—with the courts, police, and, needless to say, the media conspiring against them—make no mistake: the ILWU has never been a union to back away from a struggle.  As ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman has stated, “The ILWU cannot lose this fight; we are in it to it to win it.”

And so it is that as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising, the long sleeping giant that is American labor stirs once more.

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon.  He may be reached at bnschreiner@gmail.com.

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