(Photo: Kristine Gardner)
Victory: ILWU Takes Risks, Breaks Rules, Gets Deal with Grain Company

Ending the most heated conflict labor has seen in years, the Longshore Union (ILWU) and transnational grain exporter EGT announced February 10 they had reached a collective bargaining agreement in Longview, Washington.

Reanimating the direct action tactics that built the labor movement in the 1930s, the ILWU defended its jurisdiction and forced a union-busting corporation to back down. But with contract details scarce, it’s difficult to tell how complete the victory is.

The conflict had raged since last June, with hundreds of ILWU members mounting a campaign of nonviolent disruption after EGT shut out the union, endangering the grain work that accounts for 20 percent of the financing of its pension and welfare funds.

Hundreds of ILWU rank and filers and family members from Northwest ports invaded EGT’s terminal last September, blocking railroad tracks and dumping grain. As a result, port work was shut down in Tacoma and Seattle for the day.

The settlement finally came January 23 as the ILWU and members of the Occupy movement separately prepared to confront a grain ship approaching the disputed terminal, accompanied by a heavily armed Coast Guard convoy.

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire brokered the agreement. She apparently feared both a confrontation that could turn violent and another wildcat action by ILWU members that would shut the ports in her state.

ILWU Local 21 members voted unanimously to approve a framework agreement that withdrew several lawsuits and granted the terminal work to the ILWU through its hiring hall. While the union negotiated a contract, ILWU members worked the first ship to dock at EGT’s terminal, loading 57,000 tons of spring wheat bound for South Korea.

The union did not release results of the contract vote. A statement said the agreement covers both production and maintenance work and creates a “select pool of employees who will work as needed to service incoming vessels, barges, trains and other operations at the facility.” About 25 jobs are involved.

Sources close to the union said they feared the “select pool” could allow the company to pick and choose workers, excluding troublemaking activists like Local 21 President Dan Coffman. He didn’t return calls, and ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent declined to elaborate on the settlement.

Still unknown is whether the contract grants EGT its demands: exclusion of the union from the control room in the highly automated facility and 12-hour shifts paid at straight time (until 40 hours is reached).

EGT CEO Larry Clarke praised the five-year agreement’s “flexibility,” calling it “unique on the West Coast.”

The Longview contract is separate from the ILWU master grain agreement. The Pacific Northwest’s 4,000 union grain handlers ratified that deal last October. It expires in September 2012.

The battle kicked off last year after the union insisted EGT honor its commitment to work its new high-tech terminal with ILWU members and not the Operating Engineers. The port’s contractor had hired the IUOE after EGT walked away from talks with the longshore union.

IUOE members were escorted out of the port shortly after Gregoire announced that the ILWU and EGT had settled key issues.

NOT A TYPICAL CAMPAIGN

The ILWU’s ability to hold its ground in Longview stands out because it wasn’t a typical union campaign, operating at a distance from the levers of production at the worksite. The union didn’t approach shareholders, ask for letters, or produce glitzy media events.

Instead, members took risks and left their jobs—in effect creating a wildcat strike. They tore down fences and spilled millions of dollars of grain. They physically blocked a train, guided by their International union, whose president, Bob McEllrath, still faces criminal charges.

Indeed, the Cowlitz County district attorney still has actions pending against more than 100 ILWU members and supporters, from among more than 200 who were arrested. Some have entered guilty pleas to minor charges in exchange for community service assignments and small fines.

The International took risks as well, while at the same time trying to block actions by supporters it couldn’t control. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines imposed by the U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma remain in effect, though they may be appealed.

Occupy’s disruption of West Coast ports added fuel to the fire. When Occupiers blocked port work in Oakland, Seattle, and Portland December 12 as a protest against the 1%, they declared solidarity with ILWU members in Longview as one of their goals.

OCCUPY LONGSHORE

The ILWU rejected Occupy’s call for port shutdowns, saying it had failed to consult with the union. Tensions broke into the open, with Seattle’s Local 19 passing a resolution to withhold support for Occupy.

Still, talk swirled from the Bay Area to Seattle about the need to mass in Longview in early February to prevent the loading of the first ship to approach EGT’s terminal.

“This threat, combined with the members’ direct action, really played a key role in getting us to the table,” said an ILWU source.

Occupy groups on the West Coast had lined up hundreds of volunteers. Many were determined to act in solidarity despite the union’s public distancing, vowing that the rank and file welcomed their support.

McEllrath called on members to be ready to come to Longview on short notice, but before they could, the governor intervened. It looked like a rare recent example of a union winning a battle with the aid of community allies who were inspired by union members’ willingness to act on their own behalf.

It remains to be seen whether frayed relations can now be mended. Chris Ferlazzo, an organizer for Portland Jobs with Justice, said, “We worked hard at mobilizing community support for Local 21 members. It was unfortunate and disappointing that under the pressure of EGT, local authorities, injunctions, and the legal prosecution of Local 21 members, relations between Occupy and the ILWU became tense.”

Mischa Gaus and Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story. This article was originally published by Labor Notes.