Longshore union leader: “We’re putting our bodies on the line.”

SEATTLE – Hundreds of port workers have voluntarily stood in front of trains carrying grain to an outlaw company in Longview, Washington. Their struggle has made news across the nation and around the world. “They do this because the big grain company, EGT, refuses to honor pledges to the local community to provide good jobs in Longview,” said Dan Coffman, president of Local 21 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Coffman, who himself has been arrested on the docks along with his members, spent Friday afternoon with four labor journalists including this reporter. “It’s the same now as it was then,” he said as he stood on what has become almost sacred ground for longshore workers. He was standing near the train tracks, under a bridge in Seattle’s Smith Cove. In 1934 workers blocked trains that come into that cove for 83 days. Police, doing the bidding of the companies, shot at them from turrets they erected along the bridge.

Author Rod Palmquist was present at the interview, has written on the historic strike. He explained that before 1934 coming to work on the docks was almost like selling yourself into chattel slavery. “The bosses stood you up on a block. If you were 22, and weighed 200 lbs., their attitude was that they could get five years out of you before the life was squeezed from your body.”

Coffman said that, “until then, if workers organized in Seattle, the companies set up shop in Tacoma. If they organized in Tacoma, the companies went to Seattle. The rise of the union meant solidarity along the entire coast, decent life for the workers and bigger and better communities, in general.”

Palmquist and Coffman spoke about how, in 1934, pickets greased the train tracks and how the mayor, known as “Machine Gun Smith,” sent in police who set up machine gun nests along what is now the Magnolia Bridge. Cops on horseback led a cavalry charge against the workers. “It was union organizing coupled with support from the Roosevelt administration that began to turn all of this around,” he said.

The grain terminal that is the center of what Coffman sees as a similar fight today is owned and operated by EGT – a consortium of companies that includes U.S.-based Bunge North America, South Korea-based STX Pan Ocean and Japan-based Itochu Corporation. Bunge reported profits of $2.5 billion dollars last year. “It’s the company we have been negotiating with for years,” Coffman said.
Coffman insisted that in all the recent demonstrations where police have charged into demonstrators, the workers were peaceful and simply exercising their rights. “What in God’s name is morally wrong with sitting on train tracks,” he asked. “For exercising their rights and protesting a company that violates contracts and international laws they were hit with pepper spray, struck with batons, wrestled to the ground. They grabbed our union president, physically assaulting him and detaining him. Seeing the pictures of that really got people up and down the coast to mobilize in support of our local.”

Workers in Tacoma, Seattle, Anacortes and Everett, other ports in Washington, engaged in one day rank-and-file strikes to show their support.

“The corporate media is lying and it is lying over and over again, to try to get people to believe that the workers are the ones who are violent,” Coffman said. “It was the Longview police chief, who lied to the press when he said that on Sept. 8 six guards were held hostage for a couple of hours in Longview. That was a lie and even local elected officials have said the police chief owes the people of Longview an apology.”
Coffman said EGT received substantial tax breaks and other benefits – including the land that was secured for the company by the Port of Longview. “They signed a sweetheart deal with the port and then turned their backs on the people of the Longview by importing out of state and out of country workers to build the terminal. This helped drive down wages all over our area, hurting everyone, not just dock workers.”

Now, he said, EGT refuses to honor the contract the union has with the port to hire ILWU workers. Instead, it has brought in scabs from another union.
The company is facing a tough battle in Longview and Coffman says he is thrilled about that. Support for the ILWU is so rock solid that over 200 businesses, he said, are displaying signs in their windows that express support for Local 21 members.

Coffman said that company and government attempts to stop the union from protesting grain shipments cannot be allowed to succeed. “Laws were always stacked against workers but got really worse with Taft Hartley in 1947,” he said. “One of the purposes of that law is to restrict effective picket lines and do the bidding of companies by requiring the NLRB to seek quick and far-reaching injunctions against protest activity.”

“The company wants this to end up in federal district court,” Coffman said, “because the judge involved at the Tacoma district, Judge Ronald Leighton, is a Bush-appointed Republican judge.”

The other thing that pleases Coffman a lot is support he says is “coming in from all over.” This includes the International Longshore Association on the East and Gulf coasts, the International Dockers Council and the International Transport Workers Federation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, eventually, we see united action that could end up closing ports all over this country,” he said. “I’m not predicting that, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Photo: Dan Coffman stands at the bridge from which, in 1934, Seattle police were ordered by Mayor “Machine Gun Smith” to fire on unarmed dockworkers sitting on the railroad tracks below. John Wojcik/PW



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.