Longshore workers rally at downtown railroad tracks

By Aaron Corvin and Marissa Harshman

Published:

Updated: September 7, 2011, 6:41 PM

 
photoDozens of longshore workers representing a local union protested on BNSF tracks in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday. The group is protesting a new grain terminal at the Port of Longview.

(/The Columbian)

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A dispute over labor at a grain terminal at the Port of Longview spilled into Vancouver Wednesday as more than 200 members of an area longshore union rallied on train tracks downtown.

The demonstration by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which included Vancouver members, blocked a train headed to a new grain terminal at the Port of Longview. The company that built the new grain terminal, EGT, has been at odds with the union for months.

The protest triggered multiple impacts, halting some work at the Port of Vancouver, drawing attention to a labor dispute under review by the National Labor Relations Board and prompting railroad officials and union members to negotiate train traffic at the scene.

At issue is the use of labor at the $200 million Longview grain terminal.

The union believes it has the right to work at the facility, but EGT — a joint venture between Japan-based Itochu, Korean shipper STX Pan Ocean and St. Louis-based Bunge North America — has hired a contractor staffed by other union workers.

“EGT’s attempts to undermine the entire grain industry inspired everyone to give up our wages today to support the Longview workers,” Brad Clark, president of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, said in a news release. “We are sending a message to EGT’s foreign owners that they need to stop their attack on the American grain industry and respect the standards everyone else follows to protect worker safety and working conditions.”

Larry Clarke, chief executive officer of EGT, said in a written statement to The Columbian Wednesday that the union’s protest defied a federal judge’s temporary restraining order limiting the union’s activities.

“The ILWU is not entitled to ignore the law and when it does, it hurts families in Cowlitz County, the surrounding communities, and family farmers throughout the country who benefit from improved access to foreign markets,” Clarke said.

First shipment blocked

The labor dispute intensified in Vancouver at 7:15 Wednesday morning.

That’s when union protesters, toting picket signs, blocked the tracks at Eighth and Jefferson streets as a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train coming from Split Rock, Minn., attempted to enter the Vancouver terminal, according to Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman.

Operators stopped the train hauling 107 loads of corn short of the protesters, he said. The train’s operating crew then backed up the train 300 yards away from the protesters because of safety concerns, Melonas said.

Union members talked with BNSF officials on site and, by 8:26 a.m., began allowing other trains to pass through the terminal, Melonas said.

The protesters made it clear they would not let the train destined for Longview pass through the Vancouver terminal, Melonas said. So BNSF officials discontinued the train’s operations Wednesday morning.

By Wednesday afternoon, however, the train was on its way to Longview.

At 4 p.m., hundreds of port workers stood on the tracks near the Port of Longview and again blocked the train from its destination, ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said in a news release.

The protesters were confronted by 40 police officers in riot gear. Officers from Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, Longview police and the Washington State Patrol showed up after the number of union protestors swelled as word of the train’s arrival spread.

By 5:30 p.m., union leaders shifted gears and urged members to relent — for now, according to the Longview Daily News. A few protesters remained on the scene.

“You can get Maced and tear-gassed and clubbed (today)” or wait for longshore support from all over the West Coast when the next train tries to enter the EGT terminal, Robert McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, told protestors after union leaders met with police.

Wednesday’s shipment was the first to the new Longview facility, Melonas said. Prior shipments were all test runs, he said. It’s unclear when the next shipment is scheduled to arrive.

‘Hopeful’ for resolution

For the Port of Vancouver, Wednesday’s union protest meant the loss of about 100 ILWU workers, said Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications chief.

As a result, several cargo operations were halted. Those included a ship that was unable to be loaded with wheat and about 100 trucks that were unable to leave the port with wood pulp, steel and wind energy components.

“We were looking for about 100 folks today, and we didn’t have those folks report for work this morning,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she didn’t have an estimate of the cost of the loss of labor but that it was “significant” because “we have customers waiting and cargo not moving.”

Wagner said the port isn’t taking a position on the labor dispute in Longview. “We’re hopeful that work on the docks will resume as soon as possible,” she said.

Activity started in Longview

By lunchtime, union protesters in Vancouver had dispersed but Burlington Northern Santa Fe police remained on the scene, prepared to issue criminal trespassing citations if necessary, Melonas said.

BNSF police, including one K9 unit, monitored the area throughout the day. No citations had been issued and no arrests had been made as of Wednesday afternoon, Melonas said. Police reported no belligerent behavior or damage at the site, however, a more thorough investigation is under way, he said.

Until Wednesday, union activity had been centered at the Port of Longview. Protests have prevented train deliveries of grain to the plant since July, when hundreds of ILWU protesters blocked a milelong train from entering the terminal.

More than 100 longshore protesters have been arrested at the Port of Longview site since July 11, according to the Longview Daily News. The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint about the union’s activity, alleging the protesters engaged in death threats and assaults. A federal judge last week issued a temporary restraining order to limit the Longshore union’s activity.

Union officials have questioned the accuracy of the NLRB’s allegations and blamed EGT for provoking violence at the Longview facility’s gates, according to the Longview Daily News.

The restraining order issued by the federal judge includes a ban on union members blocking access at the EGT facility. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Wednesday’s actions were in violation of the restraining order. Sargent, the union spokeswoman, told The Associated Press that it remains to be seen what will happen next.

“It’s unfortunate that the workers face the possibility of arrest in the first place,” Sargent said. “The issue is that EGT is failing to honor its lease agreement to hire union longshore workers.”

Lease agreement disputed

The local ILWU in Longview has been pressuring EGT to hire its members to run the facility, saying EGT is obligated to do so under its lease agreement with the port and an agreement between the port and union.

“This is the latest in a very long line of actions that longshoremen are taking to stand up to a foreign company that’s trying to get a foothold in Washington and undermine the grain industry,” Sargent said during Wednesday’s protest in Vancouver.

In his written statement to The Columbian, Clarke, the CEO of EGT, called the union’s action Wednesday an escalation of its “illegal campaign of violence and threats” that has disrupted port operations “up and down the Columbia River.”

Talks between EGT and ILWU broke off in January, and this summer EGT hired union operators employed by General Construction Co. of Federal Way to run the terminal.

Columbian reporter Paul Suarez, The Associated Press and the Longview Daily News contributed to this story.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.