Sunday, 11 September 2011

Strikes and direct action in Longview

On Wednesday and Thursday, an stand-off erupted between members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Longview grain-terminal operator EGT Development. The actions taken by pickets, especially in the face of legal harassment and police violence, are exemplary.

The background of the dispute are explained by David Groves in The Stand;
EGT Development is a joint venture of Japan-based Itochu Corp, South Korea’s STX Pan Ocean and St. Louis-based Bunge North America. Like so many corporations that promise good jobs to get what they want, EGT got a special state tax exemption and a sweetheart lease deal from the Port of Longview to build a $200 million grain terminal there. The government even seized adjacent land for the project. But as soon as the deal’s ink was dry and the ceremonial first shovel of dirt was overturned two years ago, EGT began running the project on the cheap.

Despite high unemployment in Cowlitz County and the availability of hundreds of skilled union building trades workers, EGT imported the vast majority of its construction crews from low-wage communities out-of-state and did not pay area standard wages, leading to howls from the local labor community.

After the terminal was built, EGT decided to ignore the Port of Longview’s contract with ILWU Local 21 to hire union labor on its leased site. Instead, the multinational conglomerate hired non-union workers — claiming it would save the company $1 million a year (a figure the company later admitted had been plucked from the sky) — and EGT sued the Port, arguing it was not bound by the contract with the ILWU.

For months, ILWU picketed EGT and attempted to pressure the company to negotiate with the union. Those protests gradually grew in size as EGT refused to meet with the union, culminating in a major rally on June 3, when more than 1,000 ILWU supporters from Washington to California rallied outside EGT’s headquarters in downtown Portland. The protest was loud, but nonviolent.

The dispute escalated at a July 11 protest outside the EGT terminal in Longview, when members tore down a chain-link gate and stormed the EGT grain terminal. About 100 union dock workers, including union leaders, were cited and arrested.

“We are going to fight for our jobs in our jurisdiction. We have worked this dock for 70 years, and to have a big, rich corporation come in and say, ‘We don’t want you,’ is a problem,” ILWU 21 President Dan Coffman told the (Longview) Daily News. “We’re all together. We’re all going to jail as a union.”

On July 14, hundreds of union dock workers crowded onto railroad tracks to block a train from delivering grain to the EGT terminal. The Daily News reported that the 107-car train was rerouted to Vancouver following the standoff, which prompted Burlington Northern Santa Fe to indefinitely suspend train traffic to the grain terminal for safety reasons.

“By far this is the most intense labor event that I can remember,” Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson told the Daily News. But he said he understands what the union is trying to accomplish even though he didn’t agree with its tactics. “Bless their hearts. These are our neighbors, too. These are our folks. This is our community.”

EGT was feeling the heat, and community support for the local ILWU workers was growing as more people learned the facts of the dispute.

Then the company made a surprise announcement that it would hire a unionized subcontractor to run the terminal. EGT signed an agreement with Federal Way-based General Construction Co., a subsidiary of Kiewit, to operate the terminal with union members from the Portland-based International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701.

The Washington State Labor Council condemned EGT’s attempt to pit union members against each other.

“EGT, a Japanese multinational corporation that has received tax breaks from our state to build this grain elevator, has thumbed its nose at the members of ILWU Local 21 and is trying to pit workers against workers, local unions against local unions. This is unacceptable,” said WSLC President Jeff Johnson (pictured at left at a July 24 rally). “The work at the Port of Longview is longshore work and we need to come together as community and labor and say ‘no’ to EGT — ‘you will not disrespect labor in Longview or anywhere else in our state’.”

There have been numerous incidents provoked by EGT’s union-vs.-union arrangement. Most recently, a contractor drove right through the ILWU picket line on Aug. 29 and struck two ILWU members who, fortunately, were not seriously injured. Although the contractor was not cited or arrested for the vehicular assault, an angry ILWU picketer was arrested for allegedly damaging the next vehicle that attempted to cross the picket line, a charge based on video surveillance provided by an EGT security guard.

The next day, the National Labor Relations Board announced it was seeking a court order to end “aggressive picketing” at the EGT facility and allow Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains to deliver grain to the facility. Such an order was issued last week, according to Rich Ahearn, director of the NLRB’s Seattle office.

Which brings us to [Wednesday], Sept. 7.
On the Wednesday, 400 union members blockaded a train bound for EGT for four hours. They were met with 50 riot cops who clubbed and pepper sprayed the protesters in the clashes that followed. Police claim that the group "pushed against them, forcing them" to use violence, but even if true this is a flimsy excuse for beating the shit out of people. Union members say that they responded to the fear that ILWU President Robert McEllrath would be arrested and moved to protect him.

The police also formed lines against the protesters and threatened them with rubber bullet rifles, despite reminders that those on the blockade had stood with the police union in their disputes. The stand-off lasted three hours before the action finally ended, though 16 people who stayed on the track for an extra hour were arrested.

The next day, protesters stormed the plant site in order to sabotage a train before making a getaway whilst the police set up their perimeter. Nobody was arrested, and nobody was hurt as a result of the action.

Typically, the media narrative on this struggle is one of "violence" and "thuggish tactics" employed by the union. Lawyers for EGT and the National Labor Relations Board didn't get their request to ban all pickets, but a federal judge did say urge union lawyers that they had to "tell members to rein in their illegal behavior or face possible federal intervention."

However, whilst union members committed no acts of violence against people, police are alleged to have "roughed up" and "manhandled" McEllrath as well as clubbing and spraying other ILWU members.

Tellingly, the NLRB's major concern is that the union "induced or encouraged individuals employed by EGT and other persons ... to refuse to handle or work on goods and/or refuse to perform services." Which is part of what a picket line is about. If you can't attempt to persuade other workers to show solidarity with your struggle then there is little point. But then, the aim of EGT and their state supporters is clearly to defeat such solidarity - the real target of the court injunction against "picket line violence, threats and property damage."

Working class people, whether in America or elsewhere, face the full might of the state and the law if they make an effective stand against the bosses. The response to this is not to back off over fear of whether an action is "illegal" but, as ILWU members are doing, to escalate. With blockades and sabotage, they have demonstrated the power of direct action to significant effect, and they deserve our full solidarity in their struggle.