Hundreds of longshoremen in the Pacific Northwest temporarily stopped a train headed for the EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview, Washington as the workers battled for their right to work at the terminal.
Police in riot gear charged the demonstrators, and temporarily detained Bob McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The action took place on Wednesday, August 7 and was the first time since workers blocked another train headed for the terminal in July that an attempt was made to deliver grain to the new terminal.
“EGT’s attempts to undermine the entire grain industry inspired everyone to give up our wages today to support the Longview workers,” Brad Clark, president of ILWU Local 4 which represents longshoremen in nearby Vancouver. “We are sending a message to EGT’s foreign owners that they need to stop their attack on the American grain industry and respect the standards everyone else follows to protect worker safety and working conditions.”
EGT, a multinational company jointly owned by companies in South Korea, Japan, and the US, and ILWU Local 21, which represents Longview longshore workers, are locked in a dispute over the company’s refusal to abide by its contractual obligation to staff its new state-of-the-art grain terminal at the Port of Longview with Local 21 members.
Additionally, ILWU is concerned about the lack of safeguards at the highly automated terminal that put worker safety at risk. Grain terminals are very dangerous places to work, and if the safety concerns are not addressed, the union fears that the unsafe conditions at the EGT terminal will become the industry-wide standard as new grain terminals are built.
The blocking of the 107-car, mile-long train began in the morning when longshoremen from up and down the Pacific Coast gathered on the rail tracks after receiving word that a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train containing a grain shipment would arrive at the EGT terminal.
The union had stopped a similar shipment in July, and no other grain deliveries have been attempted since. Local 21 has been picketing the terminal.
The train arrived early in the morning and stopped when it saw the longshoremen and supporters on the track. Police in riot gear rushed to the scene to disperse the workers, who stood their ground. A brief scuffled between police and union members broke out when the police tried to arrest McEllrath.
Police temporarily detained McEllrath, but released him when workers protested, and the situation grew tense between the two sides.
The workers’ blockade shut down all train traffic to the Port of Longview and other ports in the Pacific Northwest, but by noon, the workers agreed to allow other trains to proceed if the grain car was parked on a side rail and did not attempt to make a delivery.
The standoff lasted until about 7:15 p.m. when a labor blog called The Strand reports that McEllrath told members, “You can get maced and tear-gassed and clubbed (today) or wait for longshore support from all over the West Coast when the next train tries to enter the EGT terminal. If we leave here, it doesn’t mean that we gave up and quit. It means we’re coming back.” Police arrested 16 workers who refused to leave the tracks and three earlier in the day charging them all with trespassing.
The Yakima Herald reports that on the next day, “hundreds of Longshore workers stormed the (terminal), overwhelmed guards and dumped grain.” Leal Sundet, Coast committeeman for the ILWU Coast Longshore Division, however, said that “EGT has employed a professional strike breaker and a labor provocateur to manufacture trouble during peaceful protest, but they can’t change the fact that longshore workers are simply wanting to go to work and do their jobs.”
Over the weekend, ILWU workers received statements of support from the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents longshore workers on the East Coast, and the International Transportation Federation, a worldwide confederation of transport unions.
“The ILA condemns this aggression against union workers seeking to protect the work that they have performed for over 80 years in the Port of Longview,” said ILA President Harold J. Daggett. “They were peacefully protesting the failure by big grain companies to honor ILWU agreements. I stand with ILWU President (McEllrath) in proclaiming: ‘It shouldn’t be a crime to fight for good jobs in America’.” Daggett said that the ILA would offer any help it could “to make certain ILWU members rights and jobs are protected.”
Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board sought an injunction that would halt picketing at the terminal. On Thursday, the judge ruled that picketing could continue with limited numbers. ILWU called the ruling a victory for free speech.
“Union members are pleased with the outcome (of the court hearing) even though they are smarting from false allegations of hostage-taking that were spread in the media throughout the day, an outright lie intended to discredit the union and its
struggle for good jobs for the community,” Sundet said.