The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has reached a tentative settlement on legal issues in a bitter labor dispute with Longview grain exporter EGT.

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EGT, a major new grain exporter in Longview, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reached a tentative settlement Monday to resolve the legal issues in a bitter labor dispute that drew national attention.

“I asked EGT and ILWU to come together in a good-faith effort to overcome their differences,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, whose intervention helped spur negotiations. “I am confident an agreement can be reached that will satisfy both parties and allow the new grain terminal to become fully operational.”

EGT Chief Executive Larry Clarke and union President Robert McEllrath, in statements released Monday, confirmed the tentative settlement. Both spoke optimistically of a final resolution, with Clarke saying he expected progress over the next several days. No details were released Monday about the settlement or how many jobs it might mean for the union.

The dispute flared over jobs at EGT’s $200 million, highly mechanized grain terminal — the first built in the region in more than a quarter-century. Company officials maintain that they had no obligation to hire ILWU workers for their operation.

Union leaders, backed up by the Port of Longview, cited contract language they said requires that their members be hired.

Tensions increased last July when EGT hired a Federal Way-based contractor to staff jobs at the terminal with an Oregon-based local of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

This was viewed as a major challenge to the powerful ILWU, which has deep roots in the West Coast labor movement dating back to historic 1930s-era organizing efforts of dock workers in California, Oregon and Washington.

Last year in Longview, union members and supporters challenged EGT in a series of protests that resulted in more than 130 arrests. In September, these actions included spilling grain from 72 freight cars and breaking windows in a guard shack. Union members also engaged in work stoppages at Longview, Seattle and other ports.

A federal judge fined the ILWU more than $300,000 for its labor tactics.

As the stakes grew higher, Gregoire got involved. She and her representatives met with the union and company representatives about a dozen times. On Monday, aides described the tentative resolution as a first step that will lead to ILWU workers being employed by EGT.

“This is what we have been hoping for,” said Ken O’Hollaren, executive director of the Port of Longview. “Gov. Gregoire’s leadership and involvement in this matter was instrumental in the news that we are getting today.”

The tentative settlement was announced as Longview braced for the arrival of the first grain ship at the EGT terminal, an event that had been expected to draw thousands of union supporters who had called for peaceful protests.

“I am happy we are making progress. Nobody wants a confrontation when they come in and load the boat,” said Mike Fuqua a longshoreman in Longview.

The Occupy Movement was also organizing activists to converge on the town for a blockade of the loading operation when the grain ship arrived.

That effort had drawn criticism from union leaders, who were under court orders not to disrupt the port operations.

Lenny Fisher, a Longview member of the Occupy Movement, learned of the agreement today. “What I believe this means is that Occupy made a difference,” he said.

EGT plans to export 8 million metric tons annually of wheat, soybeans and corn from the port, and ship traffic will roughly double at the Port of Longview.

In recent years, port exports have surged amid a huge spike in demand for Northwest logs in China and other Asian markets.

In 2010, the 182 members of Longview-based ILWU Local 21 earned an average of $99,931, according to information compiled by the Pacific Maritime Association. That was the highest average income of any port on the West Coast.

In an era when union ranks have been on a decades-long decline, this prosperity is a matter of considerable pride.

“These aren’t Wal-Mart jobs,” said Fuqua, the Local 21 longshoreman. “These are family-wage jobs with good benefits. That’s what America needs.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com