Longshore workers fight anti-union company for right to work

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and a multi-national consortium named EGT are locked in a battle. The company wants unlimited control over the workers it employs. The union wants to protect its members right to work and to keep their jobs safe. It has relied on militant tactics to do so.

The fight began earlier this year as EGT, a joint venture of Itochu Corporation of Japan, STX Pan Ocean of South Korea, and Bunge North America, was completing its $200 million automated grain terminal on property leased from the Port of Longview.

EGT decided to staff the terminal, located in southwestern Washington about 40 miles north of Portland, with non-union workers instead of ILWU members as required by its lease with the port. Dan Coffman, president of ILWU Local 21, which represents the port’s longshore workers, met with EGT management to discuss the company’s staffing decision but to no avail.

When asked by the local newspaper why EGT didn’t want to employ ILWU members, Coffman summed up the company’s reason in one word: “Control. They want to control everything,” Coffman told the Longview Daily News.

After the meetings with EGT, Local 21 began building a campaign to make the jobs at the terminal ILWU jobs. In early June, about 1,200 ILWU members and supporters attended a rally for union jobs at the terminal.

The company, however, proceeded with its plan to operate a non-union terminal. On July 11 in what the local newspaper called “one of the boldest labor demonstrations in recent memory,” about 200 ILWU members occupied the terminal grounds after a chain link fence surrounding the facility was torn down.

About 100 were arrested and cited for trespassing. Three ILWU officers were also charged with obstruction of law enforcement. The charges against those arrested for trespassing have been dropped. Those against the ILWU officers are still pending.

Two days later as the company began to test operations at the terminal with non-union workers about 600 longshoremen blockaded the railroad tracks leading to the terminal. After hearing of the blockade, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad diverted the 107-car train filled with grain to Vancouver and halted further deliveries. Since then, Local 21 has maintained around the clock pickets at the terminal, and BNSF continues to divert trains from the terminal.

Fewer than 50 jobs are in dispute, but there’s much more at stake. If EGT is able to staff its operation with non-ILWU workers, it could start a trend that would cause longshore workers to lose control over job safety and their conditions of work.

Safety is a major concern at the dozens of grain terminals along the Pacific Coast where ILWU members work. “Grain is very dangerous work, and we’ve spent decades honing our safety  procedures,” said Jennifer Sargent, an ILWU spokeswoman to the Longview Daily News.

Unless there are safety procedures in place and enforced, it’s easy for terminal workers to become trapped and smother in shifting mounds of grain. ILWU members have extensive experience working in grain terminals, and its members make sure that these safety procedures are adhered to.

The company also wants to impose a 12-hour work shift without overtime pay after eight hours and to control all work decisions no matter how they affect workers.

With the grain harvest about to begin, EGT is under pressure to get the terminal operational. As a result, it contracted with a local construction company to operate the terminal with union labor from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701.

ILWU members early in August passed out flyers at Local 701’s hiring hall urging members to reject their leaders decision to align with EGT. The ILWU also got the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board to condemn the action of Local 701, which operates out of Gladstone, Oregon near the Washington border.

As of this writing, a suit filed by the Port of Longview against EGT for violating the terms of its lease by not hiring ILWU members is pending in federal court and ILWU members are still picketing the terminal.

“We are fighting for our jobs in our jurisdiction,” Coffman said. “We are all standing together as a union on this. We will go to jail as a union.”

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