Thursday, September 08, 2011

Longshoreman Clash Shuts Northwest Ports in US

Longshoremen clash shuts Northwest ports

Work is at a standstill at ports in Seattle, Everett and Tacoma as a long-simmering labor dispute turned violent. At least 500 Longshoremen stormed the Port of Longview on Thursday morning.

By Nancy Bartley and Mike Carter
Seattle Times reporters

A federal court judge called violence at the Port of Longview on Thursday morning "patently illegal," but said he would not restrain the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) from legally picketing the EGT grain terminal.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton said Thursday afternoon there are legitimate issues between the union and EGT Development, owner of a $200 million superterminal in Longview. But he told the union's lawyers in a hearing that "you are the messengers" and that they must get control of their clients.

The hearing came after the long-simmering labor dispute turned violent about 4:30 a.m. Thursday, and as Longshoremen stayed off the job in Anacortes, Tacoma, Everett and Seattle. Port spokesmen said they have no information about when Longshoremen may return to work.

At least 500 Longshoremen stormed the Port of Longview and broke out windows in the guard shack, according to Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha. As men wielding baseball bats and crowbars held six guards captive, others cut brake lines on boxcars and dumped grain, according to Duscha.

In court Thursday afternoon, Leighton said the violence, vandalism and threats must stop now.

"They do no good for their cause" by acting like hooligans, he said of the union members.

"This is a mature process that requires restraint," Leighton said. "Your clients have none of that."

In issuing Thursday's preliminary injunction, Leighton prohibited "picket-line violence, threats and property damage," as well as blocking the EGT entrances or impeding rail or ship traffic. He said there is substantial evidence that local police and state courts are unable to control the union's misconduct.

Union attorney Robert Lavitt said union members were rebelling against a "multinational, multimillion-dollar" corporation that was threatening their livelihoods.

"We are talking about working people who are standing up trying to protect and defend everything that is important to them," Lavitt said.

Union members insist they are not responsible for any violence or vandalism at the port, a notion Duscha contests.

The Thursday morning incident is a culmination of failed labor negotiations between the union and the terminal owners who are engaged in a dispute that's now a federal court case between the Port of Longview, which has a contract with the ILWU, and EGT Development, which hired another union to work at the port, angering the ILWU.

Eight days ago, Richard Ahearn, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board filed a petition alleging ILWU Locals 4 and 21 had targeted EGT officials, workers and contractors with increasingly violent unfair labor practices and asked that all picketing be stopped.

Ahearn alleged union workers bombed EGT Terminal with a bag of manure from an airplane. It had signs attached saying "scabby 701," a reference to another local that was doing work on terminal construction.

He alleged the Longshoremen have "induced or encouraged individuals employed by EGT and other persons ... to refuse to handle or work on goods and/or refuse to perform services, and has threated, coerced, or restrained" the company and others, intending to force the company to employ its workers.

The union has also been involved in a labor dispute with EGT's contractor, General Construction, according to court documents.

Already, Ahearn said, the BNSF Railway has refused to deliver cargo to EGT Terminal because the union has refused to assure that it will not block the tracks.

Last week Leighton denied the request to stop the picketing and reaffirmed that decision Thursday afternoon.

The NLRB also asked Leighton to hold the union in contempt for violating his earlier order. Leighton set a hearing for Sept. 15.

The Thursday morning incident brought 50 police officers from Kelso, Longview, Cowlitz County, the State Patrol, Woodland, Kalama and the BNSF Railway to the scene.

No one was injured, and there were no arrests, Duscha said.

Roy San Filippo, spokesman for the ILWU, said the violence began Wednesday afternoon when police pepper-sprayed, struck Longshoremen with clubs and "manhandled" ILWU President Robert McEllrath after the union members blocked a train on its way into the EGT Terminal at the Port of Longview. Police arrested 19 Longshoremen on Wednesday.

Sue Baur Cowlitz County prosecutor, said the 19 were booked for criminal trespass in the second degree, which carries a maximum sentence of 90 days.

"If he [McEllrath] was one of the crowd that surged forward, some of them were sprayed. When it's 400 against 20, what are you going to do?" Duscha said. He said he didn't know anything about reports that police had hit protesters with clubs.

When the men stormed the terminal Thursday morning, police were "not surprised," Duscha said. "A lot of the protesters were telling us this is only the start."

One police sergeant was threatened with a baseball bat and retreated, Duscha said. "One officer with hundreds of Longshoremen? He used the better part of discretion."

Reasons behind the dispute

Other incidents have occurred throughout the summer, police said, including the arrest of seven Longshoremen in July for blocking a train, but San Filippo said Wednesday's incident sparked the wildcat walkout of workers at some Northwest ports and the destruction of property Thursday morning at the Longview port.

Tensions between the ILWU and EGT Development, the owner of the new train superterminal, have run hot for the past few months after contract negotiations broke down.

EGT, which is jointly owned by Korean, Japanese and U.S. investors, contracted with International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701, based in Gladstone, Ore., to fill the 25 to 35 jobs at the terminal. But the Port of Longview has a contract for ILWU to do the work.

EGT sued the port in U.S. District Court in January seeking the right to pursue its own contract. EGT wants its own people — specially trained to work in the $200 million terminal and capable of unloading a 110-car train in less than four hours.

According to the lawsuit, "the lease did not impose any obligation whatsoever upon EGT to utilize union labor at the terminal, much less obligate EGT to utilize persons who are represented by Local 21 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union."

The Port of Longview disputes this, saying it had a working agreement with the union that EGT knew about when it began negotiating the lease in 2007.

"If you disagree, then we have a serious dispute" that needs to be addressed in court, wrote Port Executive Director Kenneth B. O'Hollaren in court documents.

"The Longshoremen are fighting for good middle class jobs at the grain handling terminal," San Filippo said.

Union under a restraining order

On Thursday, police remained at the terminal trying to assess the damage, Duscha said. After the protest, the Longshoremen returned to their union hall and set off fireworks, Duscha said.

At the union offices in Longview, the doors were locked and people who occasionally left the building declined to talk to reporters.

The ILWU locals have been picketing the EGT grain terminal since July, according to the NLRB petition, which said that union workers have spit on, threatened and "verbally assaulted" EGT officials, blocked entrances, thrown eggs and knocked down signs at the terminal. In one instance, according to the petition, a shop steward for another local working at the terminal was assaulted and followed onto the freeway.

In seeking the injunction, Ahearn wrote, "the threat of further unlawful conduct and property damage is tangible," saying local police stated — a week before Thursday's violence — that they "do not have the staff to control the pickets."

Longview is a city with families who've worked union jobs for generations in the mills and docks.

"My husband is a retired Longshoreman," said Sharita Wines, whose father and uncle also were Longshoremen. "If you don't back the unions the whole community will fall apart."

She said the support for the union wasn't diminished by Thursday's protests. "They are not going to back down. They need to do what they believe in and they are going to do what they believe in."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or or Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or; Staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.

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