A showdown in the Northwest United States between longshore workers and a multinational corporation that operates grain elevators appears to be drawing near. Last year EGT, a grain elevator operator owned by a consortium of North American and Asian corporations, broke off negotiations with International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 over a contract that would have ensured that the jobs at its new, state-of-the art grain elevator in Longview, Washington would be good paying, have decent benefits, be safe, and belong to ILWU members.
Since then, the two sides have been engaged in an acrimonious labor dispute. ILWU President Robert McEllrath recently notified members all along the West Coast that he received word that the EGT Longview grain elevator will receive its first grain shipment sometime in January or early February.
Occupy Longview, which supports the longshore workers but is not affiliated with the ILWU, has called for everyone who can to come to Longview, located in the southwestern part of Washington, near the Oregon border, to demonstrate solidarity with the longshore workers by disrupting the grain delivery.
The call to action has been endorsed by the local central labor council, which said in a statement supporting the action, “We are imploring all able working class people willing to take time out of his or her own lives, to come to Longview, Washington for a historic protest. This is the time for workers everywhere to take a stand.”
Members of ILWU Local 21 and other ILWU members who work the West Coast ports are concerned that if EGT is able to ignore the terms of its lease with the Port of Longview that require it to use ILWU members to staff its elevators, other grain elevators operators up and down the West Coast may follow suit, putting at risk hundreds of good paying, safe union jobs.
But the leadership of the ILWU is in a delicate position. McEllrath in his letter to members warned that the union needs to be careful how it deals with this situation. McEllrath said that all ILWU members should be ready to take action to support their brothers and sisters in Longview but that “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 labors’ most effective tools, and protects commerce while severely restricting unions.”
As a result, McEllrath said that any call to action to disrupt shipments to EGT should not include any action that would shut down ports on the West Coast.
McEllrath also noted that for the most part governments at all levels have sided with EGT in this dispute. The National Labor Relations Board sought an injunction to prevent picketing by the ILWU at EGT, which a federal court denied. The NLRB is also seeking a similar injunction that would prevent solidarity actions at other West Coast ports.
Local police have arrested or summoned to court hundreds of ILWU members and their supporters who have demonstrated at EGT.
Furthermore, McEllrath said when the first shipment, which will be carried by a sea-going vessel, arrives it will be protected and escorted by US Coast Guard vessels and helicopters, whose crews will be armed.
McEllrath concluded his letter to members with this passage:
When the time comes, the International Officers and the Coast Committee will communicate with the Longshore Division locals and publicize action that supporters of the ILWU can take to advance the cause against EGT and protest government collusion to protect commerce at the expense of workers and community. We fully understand that the ILWU’s labor dispute with EGT is symbolic of what is wrong in the United States today. Corporations, no matter how harmful the conduct to society, enjoy full state and federal protection while workers and the middle class get treated as criminals for trying to protect their jobs and communities. However, please take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT. Everything is at stake for the community of Longview and our members – including personal freedom. We welcome outside support for our efforts against EGT but must make effective use of collective power.