LONGVIEW, Wash. - Washington State Governor, Chris Gregoire, announced Jan. 23 that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and EGT have reached a tentative agreement to settle a bitter, years-long, dispute on EGT's hiring of non-ILWU dockworkers at its giant new grain terminal at the Port of Longview.
"I asked EGT and ILWU to come together in a good faith effort to overcome their differences," Gregoire said. "Both parties should be commended for their willingness to work together and compromise. This framework reflects considerable effort to put the interests of the Longview community and the entire Columbia River basin first. I am confident an agreement can be reached that will satisfy both parties and allow the new grain terminal to become fully operational."
ILWU International President, Robert McEllrath said, "This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community. I want to thank Governor Gregoire for her leadership in working with both parties to find common ground. The ILWU has eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest and we look forward to the opportunity to develop a positive working relationship with EGT."
Larry Clarke, CEO of EGT said, "While the parties are still working to finalize certain conditions over the next several days, we are optimistic we can resolve the dispute and get on with the business of operating the facility."
The tentative agreement may defuse a tense standoff as the Longview dockworkers wage a valiant battle to defend their jobs.
It took a general strike in 1934 led by the great ILWU founder, Harry Bridges, to win the ILWU's system of hiring halls and the exclusive right of ILWU dockworkers to move cargo at West Coast ports and Hawaii. EGT was spearheading the corporate drive to destroy that huge victory for democracy in the workplace.
McEllrath sent out a call Jan. 3 to all ILWU locals. "We believe that at some point this month a vessel will call at the EGT facility," he wrote. "We have been told that this vessel will be escorted by armed United States Coast Guard, including the use of small vessels and helicopters....and that the facility itself will be protected by a full complement of local law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions."
He added, "The purpose of this letter is to inform and prepare the Longshore Division locals for the action that we will take when the vessel calls at EGT's facility."
McEllath reminded the locals of the "narrow path that we must cut" to avoid enforcement of the Taft Hartley Act. Months ago, EGT obtained an injunction restricting solidarity activity in support of ILWU Local 21 which represents the Longview stevedores. The workers have faced mass arrests and fines totaling more than $321,000. Yet the court also upheld the right of ILWU members to picket the terminal, "preserving our First Amendment rights to peacefully picket the company," McEllrath continued.
EGT broke off talks with ILWU in 2011 when the union rejected EGT's plan to force the workers to accept 12 hour shifts with no overtime pay in flagrant violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The company hired a Seattle-based firm, General Construction (GC), to supply labor for the terminal. GC in turn, brought in members of Oregon-based Operating Engineers Local 701 to move the grain. EGT is 51 percent owned by St. Louis-based Bunge Corporation, one of the world's biggest grain corporations listed on the New York Stock Exchange with $9 billion in assets.
The workers, mostly young women and men, have maintained their picket lines for many months, joined by an outpouring of workers from other unions who joined them on the line.
More than 700 workers stood on the tracks July 14 and blocked a mile-long grain train from delivering hundreds of tons of grain to the terminal. Later, workers occupied the terminal to stop production and dumped grain from the railroad cars to block the shipment of scab grain.
The Occupy Wall Street movement initiated solidarity actions including daylong protests last Nov. 2 that shut down the Port of Oakland.
The labor movement and the "Occupy" movement were preparing to mobilize thousands to converge on Longview to protest the arrival of the grain ship. U.S. Labor Against the War initiated an online petition to President Obama urging him to order the Coast Guard to "stand down and prevent its deployment to Longview or any other labor dispute...to keep the military out of our workplaces and union halls."
McEllrath cautioned the ILWU locals not to take any action that opens the union to further prosecution under Taft Hartley. That includes maintaining work gangs sufficient to continue loading and unloading ships as required by their contract, even as they prepare to send caravans to Longview to meet any ship arriving at the EGT terminal.
McEllrath ends his letter, "We fully understand that the ILWU's labor dispute with EGT is symbolic of what is wrong in the United States today. Corporations, no matter how harmful the conduct to society, enjoy full state and federal protection while workers and the middle class are treated as criminals for trying to protect their jobs and communities."
Until members of ILWU Local 21 have approved the tentative agreement, the labor movement and its allies will remain on alert, ready for solidarity action, union officials said.
Photo: ILWU pickets at Port of Longview, July 25, 2011. Peoples World photo.