US: Longshore workers dump grain, shut down ports

Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett ports all reportedly shut down

Hundreds of longshore workers in Longview, Washington state, broke into a new $200 million grain terminal and dumped more than 10,000 tons of grain on railroad tracks on Thursday, September 8. The ports of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett were all reportedly shut down by wildcat actions as longshore workers spontaneously flocked to Longview in support.

This militant action is the latest development in a dispute between the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 and EGT Development, a consortium of three companies that wants the new grain terminal to operate without the ILWU. Since July ILWU members and supporters have sat down on train tracks and occupied the new terminal, resulting in 100 arrests, but there were no attempts to bring in grain shipments. But last week a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order at the request of the National Labor Relations Board, which said ILWU pickets had harassed EGT workers. Once the restraining order was in place, the railroad decided to try once more to ship grain.

“EGT is attempting to break the master grain agreement and become the first grain export terminal in the Pacific Northwest to operate without ILWU,” wrote International President of the ILWU Robert McEllrath in a letter to his members last week. “This constitutes an assault on over 80 years of longshore jurisdiction – an assault that could fundamentally change the dynamics of the relationship within the grain industry as a whole.”

According to the union, EGT walked out of negotiations with Local 21 in April over the company’s demands for 12 hour shifts without overtime pay and other issues. Then, in July, EGT suddenly subcontracted out work at the facility to another company, General Construction. Scandalously, another union, Operator Engineers Local 701, signed a contract with General Construction and ignored the ILWU’s protests and pickets, playing into the bosses’ divide-and-rule-tactics.

Since July, hundreds of union members and supporters have organized around-the-clock pickets, and there have been a series of direct-action protests, blocking railroad tracks and preventing trains from reaching the terminal. More than a hundred ILWU members were arrested at one action after they tore down a fence and occupied the terminal. Then, last week, a federal judge issued a restraining order against ILWU picket lines. The company took this as an opportunity to try and move the trains.

But, on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 7, hundreds of union members and supporters blocked railroad tracks 45 miles to the south of Longview in Vancouver, WA. The workers were met by 50 police in riot gear and pepper spray. 19 workers were arrested.

Eventually, the protesters let up and the first train made it into the Longview terminal. But, when news got out to workers at ports across Washington, rank-and-file workers immediately began making the trip to Longview overnight. One worker reportedly wrote on the ILWU Facebook page, “Call out the troops, we’re going on a road trip!”

Then at 4:30 in the morning, more than 500 workers broke into the terminal, disabled the mile-long train, detained the guards and dumped the grain. The action was not sanctioned by union leaders, nor were the solidarity strikes at nearby ports. Pictures of workers wielding baseball bats against the police have circulated through the media and Facebook.

As we publish, the reports in the media indicate that, while police have cleared the terminal of protesters, things are still not over as longshoremen from up and down the West Coast continue to travel to Longview in support.

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September 2011