By NBC News / September 8, 2011
LONGVIEW, Wash. — Hundreds of Longshoremen stormed the Port of Longview early Thursday, overpowered and held security guards, damaged railroad cars, and dumped grain that is the center of a labor dispute, officials said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union dispute spread to Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Anacortes ports ahead of a court hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Tacoma, where a judge is expected to consider alleged union violations of a previous restraining order.
One possible factor in the wildcat strike was a photograph circulating on the Internet of ILWU President Bob McElrath in Longview police custody Wednesday after police arrested 19 protesters blocking rail tracks before the grain train arrived, said Craig Merrilees, union spokesman.
“I think in the minds of many members that may have been a motivating factor,” he said.
The ILWU believes it has the right to work at the facility, but the company has hired a contractor that’s staffing a workforce of laborers from the Portland-based Operating Engineers Local 701. Representatives of the engineers union did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
On Thursday, six guards were held hostage for a couple of hours after 500 or more Longshoremen broke down Longview gates about 4:30 a.m. PT (7:30 a.m. ET) and smashed windows in the guard shack, said Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha.
No one was hurt, and nobody has been arrested.
Most of the protesters returned to their union hall after cutting brake lines and spilling grain from car at the EGT Terminal, Duscha said.
‘Only the start’
Police from several agencies in southwest Washington, the Washington State Patrol and Burlington Northern Santa Fe responded to the scene.
“We’re not surprised,” Duscha said. “A lot of the protesters were telling us this is only the start.” One sergeant was threatened with baseball bats and retreated, Duscha said. “One officer with hundreds of Longshoremen? He used the better part of discretion,” he said. The train was the first grain shipment to arrive at Longview.
The protesters in Longview have portrayed themselves as being on the front line in the struggle for jobs and benefits among American workers in an economic downturn. But while union strife has flared up around the country — most notably in Wisconsin — the aggressive tactics seen in Longview have been a rarity in recent labor disputes.
Labor activists insist that after receiving tax breaks and promising to create well-paying jobs at the new $200 million terminal, EGT initially tried to staff the terminal with nonunion workers. Following a series of protests by the Longshore workers this year, the company announced it would hire a contractor staffed by workers from a different union.
“Today, the ILWU took its criminal activity against EGT to an appalling level, including engaging in assault and significant property destruction,” the company’s chief executive, Larry Clarke, said in a written statement. “This type of violent attack at the export terminal has been condemned by a federal court, and we fully support prosecution of this criminal behavior to the fullest extent under the law.”
‘Importing low-wage workforce’
The Longview blockade appeared to defy a federal restraining order issued last week against the union after it was accused of assaults and death threats.
NBC-affiliate KGW reported Wednesday that the National Labor Relations Board had previously concluded that ILWU’s Local 21 had engaged in unfair labor practices.
The NLRB said that on July 25 union protesters had spit on vehicles of competing union workers and threatened them with death, KGW reported. Some workers at the plant were attacked, the NLRB said in a report.
ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent told KGW that the labor board’s description of events included untrue allegations.
“EGT took workers’ hard-earned tax dollars hand-over-fist to build their facility,” McEllrath said, according to KGW, “then they betrayed those same workers by importing a low-wage workforce from out of the region and left local people unemployed.”