Work is at a standstill at ports in Seattle, Everett and Tacoma as a long-simmering labor dispute turned violent. At least 500 Longshoremen stormed the Port of Longview on Thursday morning.
TACOMA — A federal judge said he will not tolerate any more violence in a labor dispute between a Longview grain-terminal operator and Longshoremen, and put the U.S. Marshal’s Service on notice to enforce an injunction aimed at restoring the peace.
While U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton said there are legitimate issues at stake between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and EGT Development, thuggish tactics employed by hundreds of union members and supporters at the Port of Longview on Thursday are not acceptable.
Leighton, however, refused to ban all pickets, as requested by lawyers for EGT and the National Labor Relations Board, which sought Thursday’s injunction. He made it clear to lawyers for the unions that “you are the messengers” to tell members to rein in their illegal behavior or face possible federal intervention. No violence was reported at the other ports.
Meantime, a series of wildcat actions stopped work Thursday at ports in Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Anacortes.
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Friday morning, however, the Seattle port, which closed at 8 a.m. Thursday, returned to normal operations at 3 a.m. when longshoremen returned to work at the start of a morning shift, said Port spokesman Peter McGraw. He said the shutdown didn’t cause any backups because there were only a few ships in the port at the time.
It was a different scene early Thursday morning when at least 500 Longshoremen and sympathizers stormed the Port of Longview and broke windows in the guard shack, according to Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha. As men wielding baseball bats and crowbars held six guards captive, others cut brake lines on boxcars and dumped grain, the chief said.
A freight train carrying 107 cars of corn from Splitrock, Minn., destined for the Longview port was vandalized, spilling grain from 72 of the freight cars onto the tracks, said Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spokesman Gus Melonas.
The incident brought 50 police officers from Kelso, Longview, Cowlitz County, the State Patrol, Woodland, Kalama and the BNSF Railway to the scene. Duscha said his officers heard that the Thursday violence was “only the start.”
In his injunction, Leighton found “substantial evidence that local police authorities and the state courts are unable to control and abate the misconduct.”
Duscha said his outnumbered troops have been forced to defend themselves with pepper spray and other force.
As of late Thursday, 19 people had been arrested for misdemeanor criminal trespass, said Cowlitz County Attorney Sue Baur.
In court, union attorney Robert Lavitt told Leighton the members were reacting to an incident Wednesday in which police allegedly “roughed up” ILWU International President Robert McEllrath in Longview.
Roy San Filippo, spokesman for the ILWU, said police pepper-sprayed and struck Longshoremen with clubs. McEllrath was “manhandled” while joining an effort to block a train coming into the terminal, San Filippo said.
Baur said Thursday that McEllrath was not among those arrested.
“We are talking about working people standing up trying to protect and defend everything that is of value to them,” Lavitt said to the judge.
“I come from working people,” Leighton said. “And they could speak out for their rights and obey the law in the same breath.”
The judge said the union’s conduct violated a restraining order he had issued a week ago. “You have client-control problems,” Leighton told Lavitt.
Dispute over workers
The situation at the plant has been simmering since November 2010, when EGT told the ILWU it would not be hiring union Longshoremen to man its giant grain plant — jobs the union had counted on and the Port of Longview had assumed would be given to union workers when it finalized its 30-year lease with the company in 2009.
However, EGT said the lease gives it the option not to hire union workers. In its lawsuit against the port, EGT wrote, “The lease did not impose any obligation whatsoever upon EGT to utilize union labor at the terminal, much less obligate EGT to utilize persons who are represented by Local 21 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.”
The Port disputes this, saying it had a working agreement with the union that EGT knew about when it began negotiating the lease in 2007.
“If you disagree, then we have a serious dispute” that needs to be addressed in court, wrote Port Executive Director Kenneth O’Hollaren in court documents.
Pickets went up at the plant in June, six months after EGT filed a lawsuit against the Port of Longview — also pending before Leighton — seeking a judgment that it need not hire union workers.
The National Labor Relations Board, which sought Thursday’s injunction, said in court filings it has documented numerous unfair-labor violations by the ILWU locals 21 and 4, including threats against company workers and officials and an incident in which someone dropped a bag of manure on the terminal from an airplane.
NLRB regional director Richard Ahearn alleged the Longshoremen have “induced or encouraged individuals employed by EGT and other persons … to refuse to handle or work on goods and/or refuse to perform services, and has threatened, coerced, or restrained” the company and others, intending to force the company to employ its workers.
Leighton’s injunction prohibits “picket line violence, threats and property damage,” as well as blocking EGT entrances or impeding rail or ship traffic.
The NLRB asked the judge to hold the union in contempt of court and fine it for violating his earlier restraining order, but Leighton said he would not do it until the union had a chance to defend itself. He set a hearing on that matter for next Thursday at 2 p.m.
The Longshoremen also have a beef with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701, based in Gladstone, Ore., which has filled as many as 35 jobs at the terminal that would traditionally be held by Longshoremen.
The terminal owners, a multinational group of Japanese, Korean and U.S. investors, have sunk $150 million so far into the grain-transfer facility, according to court filings.
The terminal is supposed to open next spring at a final cost of $200 million and will be able to unload grain from 110 freight cars in just four hours.
On Thursday, police remained at the terminal trying to assess the damage, Duscha said. After the protest, the Longshoremen returned to their union hall and set off fireworks, Duscha said.
At the union offices in Longview, the doors were locked and people who occasionally left the building declined to talk to reporters.
Longview is a city with families who’ve worked union jobs for generations in the mills and docks.
“My husband is a retired Longshoreman,” said Sharita Wines, whose father and uncle also were Longshoremen. “If you don’t back the unions, the whole community will fall apart.”
She said the support for the union wasn’t diminished by Thursday’s protests. “They are not going to back down. They need to do what they believe in, and they are going to do what they believe in.”
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com. Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 firstname.lastname@example.org. Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report from Longview.